The race for France's conservative presidential nomination looked tighter than ever ahead of Sunday's first round of voting, with polls suggesting whoever emerges on top is likely to make it all the way to the Élysée Palace.
French conservatives on Sunday are being asked to pick their preferred candidate from a field of seven politicians vying for the main opposition Les Républicains presidential nomination. The contest could come down to the wire, with the race narrowing in recent days.
Bordeaux Mayor Alain Juppé once enjoyed a comfortable lead in opinion polls. But he has seen support dwindle while former French president Nicolas Sarkozy maintains even figures and former prime minister François Fillon surges forward.
Juppé told around 2,000 supporters gathered in Lille that it was not enough to applaud him. “You must also go out and vote,” he declared.
“The job will not be easy. To succeed we will need the right plan, tell people the truth, unlike the populists,” Juppé added in a barely-veiled jab at in-party rival Sarkozy.
Sarkozy meanwhile focused on the place of Islam in France when he addressed his own crowd in the southern city of Nimes, repeating a campaign pledge to ban Muslim veils in universities and wage a “relentless war” against Islamist “barbarians”.
“Integration must be replaced by assimilation,” the former president said in reference to young Muslims who he blames for flouting French laws. “One chooses to come to France for its values, not for its welfare.”
Fillon’s last campaign appearance took place in Paris, where the 3,500-seat Palais des Congrès conference centre was filled to capacity. Two conference rooms in nearby hotels were rented out by his campaign to take in overflow from the main venue.
Half of Fillon’s speech was devoted to his plans to deregulate France’s economy. “I want to give the country back its liberty,” he declared, promising to give more power to business owners and cut back on public spending if he becomes president.
Only the two candidates with the most votes will move on to a run-off poll on November 27.
Looking for a ‘new face’
People attending the simultaneous rallies expressed as much contempt for primary rivals as support for their candidate of choice.
“Anyone except Sarkozy,” yelled a middle-aged couple waving French flags on the floor of the Grand Palais convention centre in Lille, echoing a sentiment often expressed by Juppé’s supporters. “We have seen the polls, and we want to show Juppé we are here,” they added.
Louis, a university student who travelled from Montpellier to Nimes to hear Sarkozy speak, said he was unsure who he would support if Sarkozy lost the primary. “Alain Juppé is a Socialist for me, and [MP] Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet should have run in the Green Party primaries instead. I could vote for Fillon, but that would be an extreme case,” he said.
Maxence, another young voter standing nearby, said he would cast a ballot for far-right leader Marine Le Pen if Sarkozy failed to claim Les Républicain’s nomination.
Anne, a 44-year-old finance director from Paris, said she was leaning toward Fillon and had come to his rally to “confirm” her decision. “I think Fillon has presidential character, but we should not repeat history, so a new face is important too,” she said, in what could be interpreted as a dig at Sarkozy, France’s president from 2007 to 2012.
The other four primary candidates in the primary contest also tried to woo voters as the election clock ticked down.
Earlier in the day MP Jean-François Copé answered questions on conservative Radio Classique. MP Bruno Le Maire spoke to supporters at a town hall-style meeting in the central city of Brives. Kosciusko-Morizet met with tech executives in the south-west city of Castres, while MP Jean-Frédéric Poisson addressed voters at an auditorium in Marseille.
All the candidates are members of the Les Républicains party, except Poisson, who is the president of the ultra-conservative Christian Democratic Party.
The seven candidates held their third and last debate on Thursday night, all pledging to increase security and France’s military might, but clashing on how to fix Europe and how to deal with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
With the candidates largely agreeing on the main issues, the vote is likely to come down to nuances in their programmes and their political record.
The winner of the right-wing primary is likely to become president next year, according to opinion polls.
Ségolene Allemandou, Romain Brunet and Charlotte Boitiaux contributed to this article.
Date created : 2016-11-18