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French conservatives compete in first round of presidential primary

Damien Meyer, AFP | People prepare to vote at a polling station in Betton in western France on November 20.

Organisers of primaries to designate a conservative candidate for next year's presidential election said turnout had passed 2.5 million voters by 5pm local time (GMT+1), with large crowds reported at polling stations across the country.

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Seven candidates are vying for the nomination, all but one of them are members of the opposition Les Républicains (formerly the UMP party). Those in the running include ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, former prime ministers Alain Juppé and François Fillon, and ex-government ministers Bruno Le Maire, Jean-François Copé and Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet. Jean-Frédéric Poisson is the candidate for the Christian Democratic Party.

The strong turnout suggests the conservative camp will easily surpass voter numbers in the last major French primary, organised by the Socialist Party ahead of the 2012 presidential election.

This is the first time France’s conservative candidate will be chosen in an open primary. Nominees were previously designated internally by the party.

“This is something very new for the French right,” historian Jean Guarrigues told FRANCE 24, noting that the conservative camp traditionally falls in line behind “a charismatic chief”.

Results from the first round of voting are expected late on Sunday, with a run-off being held between the top two candidates next Sunday.

Le Pen impacting party policy?

Even as they contend for the nomination, the centre-right candidates are also keeping a close eye on far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, whose criticism of France's immigration policies and Islamist extremism resonates with many French voters. Le Pen's policies have played particularly well with disillusioned Les Républicains voters, but some are criticising the party's perceived move to the right in response to the threat.

With the ruling Socialists all but written off, opinion polls suggest whoever wins the right-wing primary is likely to face – and defeat – Le Pen in a presidential run-off next May.

The candidates held their third and last debate on Thursday night, with 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 records.

Primaries 'something very new for the French right'

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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