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France's economy? Voters don't care about that, says expert

The lackluster state of the French economy is slipping down the list of hot topics for voters as the race for the presidency in 2017 starts to accelerate, according to one expert.

Jonathan Fenby, director of European Political Research at TSL Research Group told CNBC on Friday that concerns about immigration and security have overtaken worries about the economy.

"It is immigration and law and order now," Fenby told CNBC Europe's "Squawk Box" on Friday. "(In the past) it certainly was the economy and unemployment which has remained around 10 percent (that voters cared about) but now with the terrorist attacks over the last 18 months or so it's very much become security."

Earlier this week, seven candidates were lined up to run in the French conservative presidential primaries coming up in November. The former President Nicolas Sarkozy and the former Prime Minister Alain Juppe are considered the frontrunners while Bruno Le Maire and Francois Fillon are among the other contenders.


The Eiffel tower is closed for security reasons and guarded by police following Fridays terrorist attack on November 15, 2015 in Paris, France.
Xavier Laine | Getty Images
The Eiffel tower is closed for security reasons and guarded by police following Fridays terrorist attack on November 15, 2015 in Paris, France.

Six out of the seven candidates are from the main opposition Republican party with immigration, national identity and security becoming the key themes for the candidates. France has been rocked by several high-profile Islamist-inspired terrorist attacks in the last 18 months, from the Charlie Hebdo attack in January 2015 to the Paris massacre last November and, most recently, the Bastille Day attack in Nice.

The conservative primaries will be held on November 20 with a possible run-off the week after, if no candidate gets at least 50 percent of the votes. France 24 noted this week that the stakes are high for the vote "with polls showing that the winner of the primary would be the clear favorite to win the election next May."

Leaning to the right

Fenby said that many of the candidates represented the "old political establishment" that French voters were rejecting.

"(The candidates) are all 'former something' -- 'former prime minister' or 'former this or that.' Sarkozy is trying a comeback and the paradox is that most of the French voters are rejecting the old establishment. But Juppe, who appears to be the frontrunner in the polls, is Mr Establishment."

Challenging the center-right and right-wing parties for votes is Marine Le Pen, the head of the anti-immigration and euroskeptic Front National (FN) party.

Le Pen is expected to get through a first round of the presidential election and is expected to face a center-right adversary in the final run-off – such as Sarkozy or Juppe.

France operates a two-round system in which candidates have to win 50 percent of the vote to pass through to a second-round of voting which then determines a single winner. Fenby explained that Le Pen's current popularity in the polls meant that she stood to face a center-right candidate in the run-off. French President Francois Hollande, of the Socialist party, has yet to say if he will run again for the leadership but his low approval ratings mean his chances of re-election are slim.

"It's almost certain that Le Pen will finish in the top two in the first round of the presidential election," Fenby said. "Remember this is a two-round election (so) Le Pen will finish top with around 30 percent (of the vote) -- so the important thing is who finishes up there with her. So really this Republican primary in November is a kind of presidential election in advance, because the left really doesn't have much of a chance."

Fenby said that the rise of the right had come as the Socialist party had proved itself to be anemic in power with economic reforms slow to materialize and the economy slow to recover.

"What you've got in France is the complete decline of the center-left…so you've got no answer to this right and extreme-right surge in France," he said.

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