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US vote hangs over French primaries

French Conservative candidates are ditching their establishment credentials and promising change, as "l'effet Trump" lingers, writes Elizabeth Bryant from Paris.

Alain Juppé once seemed poised to become France's next president. The former prime minister was riding high in the polls, scoring points for his moderate stances and lengthy experience in politics.

But last week's elections in the United States prove just how wrong predictions can be. And ahead of the first round of conservative primaries on Sunday, the 71-year-old is watching his lead evaporate and new threats emerge in what some are describing as "l'effet Trump."

"Mr. Trump's election is frightening many politicians in France," says analyst Philippe Moreau Defarges of the Paris-based French Institute of International Relations, about US President-elect Donald Trump. "Many people on the street see Mr. Trump's victory as bad news for the establishment," he told DW.

Like elsewhere in Europe, the US results are resonating as a wake-up call in France, upending long-held assumptions and triggering fears - and hopes - that next spring's presidential elections will deliver a similar upset.

This past week has seen two popular outsiders take new steps in consolidating support, as far-right leader Marine Le Pen inaugurated her campaign headquarters in Paris - not far from the Elysée presidential palace - and maverick ex-investment banker Emmanuel Macron threw his hat into the ring.

Marine Le Pen (Picture-Alliance/AP Photo/C. Paris)

Le Pen is hoping to capitalize on Trump's unexpected victory for her own presidential ambitions

Election wide open

The developments come as the ruling Socialists and center-right opposition are splintered by rivalries and infighting. The country's current president, Francois Hollande, has yet to declare whether he will run for another term, and is unlikely to win if he does.

"Which means the election is wide open," says Moreau Defarges. "We could see a lot of surprises in 2017."

Whether the impact of the US vote will be lasting or ephemeral here is anybody's guess. But today, Juppé and many other mainstream candidates are scrambling to ditch their insider credentials - a tall order given most have been around for years. The seven running in the conservative primaries, for example, include two former prime ministers, an ex-president and four other veteran lawmakers.

"All of them are criticizing the elite, the establishment and promising change," says Jean-Eric Branaa, a US expert and professor at Paris II University, who notes that the French followed the US vote as if it were their own. "So voters here are quite puzzled."

Many French are also disenchanted with the status quo. The downsides of globalization and immigration, not to mention the country's struggling economy are all powering a hunger for new faces and solutions.

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"My students believe they will be unemployed for a while, and that's a disaster because they're top-level students," Branaa told DW. "They believe politicians didn't do the right things to change the future when they had the keys to do so."

The two rounds of conservative voting will prove an initial test of how these sentiments pan out in the ballot box. The ruling Socialists hold their own elections in December, marking the first time both parties hold presidential primaries.

Ahead of Sunday's vote, polls show a last-minute surge away from Juppé and toward another conservative ex-prime minister, Francois Fillon, who is now running neck and neck for second place with former president Nicolas Sarkozy.

"He is the man who is the most honest and isn't dogged by past problems," says retired business executive Georges Drouin, who likes Fillon's experience and competence.

Not Hillary Clinton

For his part, Juppé has been struggling to fire up voters, drawing comparisons with another establishment favorite in the United States who saw her sure-fire victory collapse. "I am not Hillary Clinton," he said in a radio interview Friday. "France is not America."

Others aren't so sure. "There's the same feeling here as in the US," says 19-year-old university student Victor, who has not decided how he will vote. "People here want to vote for someone like Trump, especially now (that) he won the elections," he told DW.

Complicating matters, the French are allowed to cast their ballots in either - or both - primaries, regardless of their party affiliation. Many expect left-wing voters to gatecrash the conservative balloting to avoid more hard-right Sarkozy from winning.

Whatever the outcome, the winners of the two primaries will have to contend with the National Front's Le Pen, who sees Trump's victory is a harbinger of her own.

"It's possible," acknowledged Prime Minister Manuel Valls that Le Pen could be France's next president. Still, analysts note it will be a daunting task for the far-right candidate to gather enough support to win a second-round runoff.

The Trump effect

Frankreich Emmanuel Macron gibt seine Kandidatur bekannt (Getty Images/AFP/P. Kovarik)

Macron is popular among young voters; the question is whether he can garner enough support from other groups

Then there is 38-year-old Macron, who quit his job as economy minister earlier this year to set up his own political movement, "En Marche!" (Forward!).

Like Trump, he is a relatively new face promising change. "I think he'll cause waves," predicts Christophe de Courson, a young business owner who is voting for Fillon in the primaries, but doesn't rule out backing Macron in the elections. "He really knows the issues. He has a political plan. The fact you can't label him is a plus."

A new poll finds 57 percent of respondents believe Macron's entry into the presidential ring is good news. Nearly eight in 10 consider him dynamic.

"Young people are very keen on him," says analyst Branaa, adding, however, that like Trump, Macron is long on ideas but short on specifics about implementing them.

Indeed, how Trump fares early on as president may make a difference here.

"Will he be able to show in his first months in office that he is a real president - or will the results be disappointing?" Moreau Defarges asked. "We don't know. And there will be consequences in France."

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