Millions of French voters head to the polls on Sunday to select a presidential candidate for the centre-right Republicans party, with ex-premier Francois Fillon tipped to emerge the winner and become the favourite for next year’s election. The US-style primary contest, the first for the Republicans, is a battle between socially conservative and economic “radical” Fillon and the more moderate Alain Juppe, also a former prime minister who is nine years older at 71.
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The French presidential vote is being seen as a key test for mainstream political parties after the success of Donald Trump in the United States and the Brexit campaign in Britain, both of which harnessed anti-elite, anti-establishment anger.
Whoever wins on Sunday will face fierce competition from far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who is waiting in the wings ready to attack the victor as a symbol of France’s ruling class.
Fillon, a career politician and prime minister from 2007-12, has warned that France is “on the verge of revolt” and believes his plan to slash 500,000 public sector jobs and business regulations is the tonic the demoralised country needs.
“I’ll do everything for entrepreneurs!” he declared at his final rally on Friday night in Paris, promising to unleash businesses in order to create the jobs needed to lower a stubbornly high unemployment rate of around 10 percent.
The devout Catholic and motor racing fan has also won support with his hard line on Muslim immigrants, as well as an emphasis on protecting France’s identity, language and family values.
He demanded Friday that “the Islamic religion accept what all the others have accepted in the past… that radicalism and provocation have no place here.”
Juppe has made a clear pitch for the centre-ground, accusing his opponent of wanting to reform France with “brutality” with an unrealistic programme that has drawn support from the far-right.
As well as promising to shrink the French state, Juppe’s signature announcement was a promise to seek a “happy identity” for multicultural France despite worries about the threat of immigration and Islamic extremism.
“I think I am best placed with my programme to beat Marine Le Pen,” Juppe said on the last day of campaigning on Friday.
He has also sought to highlight Fillon’s conservative views on abortion and gay marriage, as well as his closeness to Russian President Vladimir Putin who praised Fillon last week as a “very principled person”.