With just under a fortnight to go before the right-wing party Les Républicains elects its president, the three candidates in the running faced off in a 90-minute televised debate to defend their platforms.
The 91,000 members of the party will have to vote online for the candidate of their choice during the weekends of December 3th-4th for the first round, and December 10th-11th for the second round. The election of a new president, which follows the resignation of the title holder, MP Christian Jacob, should allow the centre-right party to turn the page on the painful defeat of their candidate Valérie Pécresse, who failed to gather more than 5% of voters in the April 2022 presidential election.
An internal debate is always a perilous exercise, as the candidates must be able to make their differences evident while avoiding a sterile fight that could make their political family look fractured or dysfunctional. The respective positions of the three candidates can be summarised as follows. Bruno Retailleau, leader of Les Républicains in the Senate, seeks to embody the unity of the party and the traditional line of the Right, “a Right that assumes its convictions,” according to his own words. Deputy Éric Ciotti plays the card of a more radical and provocative Right, to, in his words, finally “dare the Right,” against the “decline” of France. The third man, Aurélien Pradié, wants to embody the disruptive youth and break the relative consensus that unites Eric Ciotti and Retailleau by asserting a more social fibre compatible with the Centre.
During the debate, all the major challenges of the moment were addressed: Ukraine, of course, but also the economy, inflation, and even ecology. On migration policy, the differences were notable. As discussions advanced to the Ocean Viking affair, Aurélien Pradié said he wanted to give priority to “the human factor:” according to him, “the human emergency is to save the shipwrecked.” In contrast, Éric Ciotti violently attacked Emmanuel Macron’s choice of welcoming the boat, while praising the position of the Italian leader Giorgia Meloni. Retailleau took the opportunity to criticise the lack of coherence of Ciotti, who in the hemicycle accused Rassemblement National deputy Grégoire de Fournas of racism, when Fournas had suggested the refugee boat “go back to Africa.” Retailleau clearly distinguished himself from his colleague Ciotti in this matter of ‘image maintenance’ with respect to political correctness, declaring: “I have never fallen for the Left’s moral lessons.” “I did not consider that it was racist to want to make illegal immigrants go home,” he added, thus making quite clear his support for the deputy from the National Right.
Two other fault lines appeared between the three men. On the issue of pension reform, Bruno Retailleau and Éric Ciotti bear little hostility toward Emmanuel Macron’s project, if and only if the bill seems to them to be going in the right direction. Aurélien Pradié, for his part, deviated by refusing any compromise with the presidential majority on this issue, primarily—in his words—out of loyalty to the interests of the “popular Right.”
The exchanges were tense on the issue of abortion, some of which included discussions on including the right to abortion in the constitution. Senator Bruno Retailleau, who has never hidden his conservative positions on the subject, criticised the idea “imported by the far Left from the United States.” He was then attacked by his opponents, and especially by Ciotti, who accused Retailleau of having “turned towards the past.” Ciotti instead defended a Right “in phase with society.”
At the end of the debate, the three men affirmed their conviction that a specific political space continued to exist between Emmanuel Macron’s centrism and the Rassemblement National. While there are persistent rumours about a possible agreement between part of Les Républicains and Macron’s party Renaissance, it is now up to the members of the LR formation to indicate in which direction they wish to see their party continue its journey.