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French to pick centre-right presidential candidate

November 27, 2016

French voters were heading to the polls on Sunday in a primary run-off contest predicted to give François Fillon the centre-right nomination and a good chance of becoming president of France next year.

Mr Fillon, the former prime minister who unexpectedly surged to pole position with 44 per cent of the votes in a first round last Sunday, is facing Alain Juppé, the longstanding favourite who has come second with 28 per cent.

The centre-right nominee will be well placed to win the 2017 presidential election. Surveys suggest that François Hollande, the deeply unpopular socialist president who is expected to declare his candidacy next month, would fail to qualify for the second round of the run-off in May. Mr Fillon would face Marine Le Pen, the far-right National Front leader, in the second round and be favourite to defeat her.

In the days leading up to the primary run-off, 71-year-old Mr Juppé, who was prime minister under Jacques Chirac, tried to make up for lost ground by criticising his opponent’s radical free-market platform and traditional views on social issues. The Bordeaux mayor pointed to what he called Mr Fillon’s “lack of credibility” and “brutality” on the economy.

Mr Juppé also emphasised his more liberal views on social issues compared with those of his rival, who has received the backing of anti-gay marriage activists, in an attempt to mobilise centrist voters.

On Thursday, during the campaign’s last televised debate, a combative Mr Juppé lashed out at public spending cuts proposed by Mr Fillon. He also sought to provoke his competitor over his close ties with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, and his willingness to negotiate with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

“I must admit that it’s the first time that a Russian president interferes in a French election by giving the name of his candidate,” Mr Juppé said, referring to Mr Putin’s praise for Mr Fillon on Wednesday.

Mr Fillon, meanwhile, focused on his radical supply-side reforms, pointing out that Mr Juppe’s cure for France’s woes was too gentle to produce the “shock” he is instead advocating. The 62 year-old politician laid out more ambitious measures to shrink the welfare state, scrap the 35-hour working week and revisit the French postwar social model that “is taking on water from everywhere”.

“Alain Juppé does not really want to change things. He’s keeping with the system, he wants to improve it,” Mr Fillon said. “My project is more radical.”

All registered voters can take part in the run-off provided they pay €2 and sign a charter stating they agree with the “Republican values of the centre and the right”.

Last Sunday, more than 4m voters turned out, more than organisers had anticipated, and knocked Nicolas Sarkozy, the former leader, out of the race. The 10,228 polling stations across France are closing at 7pm. Preliminary results are expected after 8:30pm.

Via FT