French conservatives head to the polls to pick 2017 presidential nominee
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French conservatives on Sunday are choosing their nominee for next year's vital presidential election from among two former prime ministers with deep experience in government and differing views on how to prevent more terror attacks on French soil.
Whoever wins the primary stands a good chance of being elected French president next year, according to opinion polls, with the Socialists floundering and the far-right National Front lacking traditional grass-roots support.
Both candidates are high-profile players in the center-right Les Républicains party [formerly UMP], with Fillon -- who wants to focus on fighting Islamic extremism -- judged by many to be the favourite.
The winner of the runoff could end up facing far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who is banking on anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-establishment sentiments to sweep her to power in the presidential election (which is set for April 2017, with a runoff the following month if neither side wins a majority).
The incumbent, Socialist President François Hollande is expected to announce in the coming weeks whether he will seek re-election. The position of the French left has been weakened by Hollande's extreme unpopularity, with several party leaders so alarmed by Hollande’s abysmal approval ratings they have publicly urged Hollande to not run.
Fillon's traditional family values
Fillon has surprised many by enjoying a major boost in popularity in recent weeks. He promotes strong patriotism, traditional family values and also said he plans to reduce immigration to France "to a minimum."
Juppé is advocating a more moderate position, based on respect for religious freedom and ethnic diversity.
Juppé said in a televised debate with Fillon, “We come from different ancestors, we have different skin colours, and different religions, and that is our strength.”
The two also have strongly different views on how to deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin, with Fillon in favor of forging closer ties.
Putin backs Fillon
Fillon wants to drop sanctions against Russia over its aggressive actions in Ukraine and partner with Russia in the fight against Islamic State group extremists. He also argues that economic sanctions led by France’s Hollande and other EU leaders over Russia’s annexation of Crimea had completely failed, only hurting French farmers who had been affected by retaliatory trade measures.
Fillon insists "Russia poses no threat, the real danger is economic and it is called Asia.” Meanwhile Juppé wants France to continue piling pressure on Putin on various fronts, including economic sanctions.
Juppé has spoken of his alarm that Putin has weighed in on France’s election – rather as he did in the US recently -- by publicly backing Fillon.
Both Fillon and Juppe propose supply-side economic measures including cuts in public spending and raising the retirement age, although Fillon promises more drastic and faster measures.
They also both pledge to reduce the number of civil servants, extend the work week beyond 35 hours and cut business taxes.
Though Juppe, unlike Fillon, has promised to hire another 10,000 police officers to help improve law and order and combat the threat from terrorism.
Contenders with experience
Fillon was the prime minister from 2007 to 2012 under President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was eliminated in the primary's first round a week ago and now is backing Fillon. Juppé was prime minister from 1995 to 1997 under President Jacques Chirac.
In the first round of primary voting on November 20, Fillon won 44.1 percent of the votes, Juppé 28.6 percent and Sarkozy 20.7. A second round is needed because no candidate secured a majority.
All French citizens over 18 - whether they are members of Les Républicains or not - can vote in the primary if they pay 2 euros in fees and sign a pledge stating they "share the republican values of the right and the center."
Citizens can vote in one of the 10,228 polling stations open from 8am to 7pm (7am to 6pm GMT) across the country.
More than 4.2 million people voted in the first round, with organisers surprised at the strong turnout.
Results are expected Sunday night.
(FRANCE 24 with AP)