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French right-wing primaries up for grabs as Fillon surges in polls

Nicolas Mollo, AFP | Former French prime minister François Fillon speaks to supporters during a meeting on November 12, 2016 in Biarritz, southwestern France.

The outcome of Sunday’s primary to choose a conservative presidential candidate looked increasingly uncertain Wednesday after polls showed former prime minister François Fillon’s ratings rise dramatically in what had been a seen as a two-man race.


Just last week, polls had 71-year-old former prime minister Alain Juppé heading for a comfortable win in Sunday’s first round of primaries for the conservative Les Républicains party and its centre-right allies. Coming in second was former president Nicolas Sarkozy, under whom Fillon served as prime minister from 2007 to 2012.

Sarkozy has sought to mobilise the populist end of the right-wing spectrum, hoping for a “Trump effect” upset in the primaries to deliver him victory and the chance of a second mandate. But if the polls are to be trusted, his strategy appears to be faltering.

The results of an OpinionWay survey published Tuesday, November 15, showed Fillon, who had been languishing in a distant third place, taking 25 percent of likely voters, putting him neck-and-neck with his former boss Sarkozy.

A second round will take place on November 27 if no candidate wins 50 percent of the vote on Sunday.  

Fillon’s ratings double in a month

While 25 percent support may seem meagre, especially in the wake of the high-profile polling failures during Brexit and the US presidential election, Fillon’s new ranking is nevertheless significant as it has more than doubled since mid-October. It is also five points higher than estimates from an earlier poll published Monday.

His last-minute rise comes as his rivals have seen their popularity ratings slip. Juppé lost seven points in the same period and now has the support of around 33 percent of likely voters in Sunday’s first round. Similarly, Sarkozy’s rating has dropped from 31 percent to 25 percent since the end of October.

Importantly for Fillon, the same poll has him beating Juppé if they go face to face in the second round by 54 percent to 46 percent. Fillon is even further ahead of Sarkozy, with the support of 63 percent of likely voters against his rival’s 37 percent.

For the first time, the primary vote is open to all French citizens and not just party members. And while Sarkozy is the favourite among members of his Les Républicains party, the many centrist and left-wing voters who are expected to take part are overwhelmingly against a comeback by the former president.

Fillon in bullish mood

“I believe I will go through to the second round, and after that, the second round is there for the taking,” a confident Fillon said in an interview with RTL radio on Wednesday.

“Nicolas Sarkozy will only take this country backwards,” he said. “It has always been extremely difficult in this country for a former president to get back into office after having been beaten.”

“On the other hand, there is Juppé, whose campaign has been overwhelmingly prudent, and who hasn’t proposed the kind of reform programme this country needs.”

Fillon, who has a less extreme programme on security and immigration than Sarkozy, is promising Thatcherite free-market policies. He wants to cut up to 600,000 public sector jobs and plans to scrap France’s 35-hour workweek.

He has had a more successful run in TV debates than Juppé, who is seen by many non-party members as merely the “least worst” candidate if it comes to a choice between him and Sarkozy.

“You may be surprised but I am not,” Fillon told RTL about his poll boost. “I have been saying for months that the polls don’t make much sense and that the primaries would start at the point where the candidates start talking to the French people.”

A bigger challenge looms

If the polls are to be believed, the winner of the November 27 second round will be up against far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen in the 2017 presidential election.

Poll after poll has predicted Le Pen winning the first round, only to be beaten by the mainstream conservative candidate in the second.

The winner of November’s primaries will therefore be the favourite to become French president next year, given the weakness of the ruling Socialists and the record unpopularity of current President François Hollande, who has yet to declare whether he will run for a second term in office.

Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker who was Hollande’s economy minister until August 2016, also announced his candidacy on Wednesday. Although Macron is among France's most popular politicians, the 38-year-old, who will stand as an independent, does not currently hold elected office and has no party apparatus behind him.

And while he has yet to set out his policies in any detail, he is widely seen as the candidate most likely to take votes from conservative Juppé in a presidential election.

For Fillon, Macron’s announcement on Wednesday was the final nail in the coffin of Hollande’s presidency.

“This is an important date, remember it,” Fillon said. "Not only is Hollande failing on all fronts, but he has also lost the one man (Macron) who was closest to him and was the architect of his economic programme. Hollande’s authority is finished.

But he said Macron was unlikely to be successful. “I firmly believe that the French will not trust their national destiny to someone with no experience of elected office and who has said nothing about his plan to run the country."

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