France votes for centre-right candidate – and perhaps next president

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Paris – Former prime ministers Francois Fillon and Alain Juppe go head-to-head on Sunday in a runoff vote for France’s centre-right presidential nomination, with the winner likely to face a showdown against a resurgent far-right in next year’s election.
Opinion polls show Fillon, a social conservative with a deep attachment to his Catholic roots, going into the race as the clear favourite after stunning his centrist challenger with a massive surge in support just before the Nov. 20 first round. A 62-year-old racing car enthusiast who lives in a Loire valley chateau, Fillon promises radical reforms to France’s regulation-encumbered economy, vowing to roll back the state and slash government’s bloated costs. Scrambling to regain momentum, Juppe, 71, a soft-mannered moderate who is currently mayor of Bordeaux, has attacked the “brutality” of his rival’s reform program and says the Paris lawmaker lacks credibility.
But in a blow to his comeback bid, television viewers found Fillon more convincing in a head-to-head debate on Thursday.
“My enemy is the decline of France,” Fillon declared on Friday night, speaking to supporters in Paris at a final rally before the vote.
Many French citizens view Sunday’s Les Republicains primary contest as a proxy for next spring’s presidential election.
Pollsters say the winner will be favourite to enter the Elysee palace, with the ruling Socialists in turmoil and the anti-establishment National Front historically disadvantaged by France’s two-round system. Yet after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s shock triumph in the United States (US) election, France’s vote is shaping up to be another battle of strength between weakened mainstream parties and the rising force of insurgent populists.
There could still be upsets ahead.
Voting opens at more than 10,000 polling stations across France at 8 a.m. (0700 GMT) and closes at 7pm. The first results may emerge within an hour and a half of polls closing.
With France still under a state of emergency since terrorists killed 130 people in gun and bomb attacks in Paris in November 2015, and with soldiers on patrol in the capital’s streets, security will be tight near polling points.
Juppe, who has focused his attacks on Fillon’s proposals to cut public sector jobs and end the 35-hour week, bills himself as the best-placed Les Republicains candidate to defeat the far-right leader Marine Le Pen next spring.
“There is a France that is winning and a France that is suffering,” he said in Thursday’s debate. “We must bring the two together.”
Polls show both candidates would beat Le Pen in the expected presidential runoff vote, though Juppe, who would be better placed to rally left-wing voters, would do so by a more comfortable margin.
President Francois Hollande, whose low popularity ratings mirror the disarray in the ranks of the Left, has two weeks in which to decide whether to run for re-election.
Fillon’s Thatcherite economic platform would give the 62-year-old Hollande a target to attack and could convince him to make a bid for a second five-year mandate against the odds.
Current opinion polls show any Socialist candidate would get knocked out of the election’s first round next April, with the Les Republicans candidate going on to beat the National Front’s Le Pen in the May runoff.–AFP