France to vote for conservative presidential candidate likely to face far-right's Le Pen

Former prime ministers François Fillon and Alain Juppé go head-to-head on Sunday in a runoff vote for France’s centre-right presidential nomination, with the winner likely to face a showdown against a resurgent far-right in next year’s election.

Opinion polls show Fillon, a social conservative with a deep attachment to his Catholic roots, going into the race as the clear favourite after stunning his centrist challenger with a massive surge in support just before the Nov. 20 first round.

A 62-year-old racing car enthusiast who lives in a Loire valley chateau, Fillon promises radical reforms to France’s regulation-encumbered economy, vowing to roll back the state and slash government’s bloated costs.

Scrambling to regain momentum, Juppé, 71, a soft-mannered moderate who is currently mayor of Bordeaux, has attacked the “brutality” of his rival’s reform programme and says the Paris lawmaker lacks credibility.

But in a blow to his comeback bid, television viewers found Fillon more convincing in a head-to-head debate on Thursday.

“My enemy is the decline of France,” Fillon declared on Friday night, speaking to supporters in Paris at a final rally before the vote.

Upset victory possible

Many French citizens view Sunday’s Les Républicains primary contest as a proxy for next spring’s presidential election.

Pollsters say the winner will be favourite to enter the Élysée palace, with the ruling Socialists in turmoil and the anti-establishment National Front historically disadvantaged by France’s two-round system.

Yet after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s shock triumph in the U.S. election, France’s vote is shaping up to be another battle of strength between weakened mainstream parties and the rising force of insurgent populists.

FRANCE USA ELECTION AFTERMATH -- Marine Le Pen -- Nov. 9, 2016

Marine Le Pen’s anti-establishment Front National party has been historically disadvantaged by France’s two-round system. (Yoan Valat/EPA)

There could still be upsets ahead.

Voting opens at more than 10,000 polling stations across France at 8 a.m. local time and closes at 7 p.m. The first results may emerge within an hour and a half of polls closing.

With France still under a state of emergency since Islamist militants killed 130 people in gun and bomb attacks in Paris in November 2015, and with soldiers on patrol in the capital’s streets, security will be tight near polling points.

Unpopular Socialists ‘could get pulverized’

Polls show both candidates would beat Le Pen in the expected presidential runoff vote, though Juppé, who would be better placed to rally left-wing voters, would do so by a more comfortable margin.​

President François Hollande, whose low popularity ratings mirror the disarray in the ranks of the Left, has two weeks in which to decide whether to run for re-election.

Fillon’s Thatcherite economic platform would give the 62-year-old Hollande a target to attack and could convince him to make a bid for a second five-year mandate against the odds.

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President François Hollande’s low popularity ratings mirror the disarray in the ranks of the Left. He has two weeks to decide whether to run for re-election. (Stephane de Sakutin/Reuters)

Current opinion polls show any Socialist candidate would get knocked out of the election’s first round next April, with the Les Républicains candidate going on to beat the National Front’s Le Pen in the May runoff.

Prime Minister Manuel VallsValls warned that his Socialist party risked getting wiped out in next year’s presidential election, as he kept open the possibility in a newspaper interview of running.

“I must remind you — we could get pulverized during the evening of the first round,” Valls told French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche in an interview to be published on Sunday, adding that “the left wing could die.”

Asked if he could challenge Hollande in the Socialist party’s primaries, Valls replied: “I will make my decision while examining my conscience.”

“Whatever happens, the best interests of the country will influence my decision,” Valls added in the interview.

Previous French media reports have said Valls would consider a presidential bid if Hollande chose not to run.

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