World Bulletin / News Desk
Two former French prime ministers will face off in the latest battle to see who will lead the center-right Republicans’ challenge for the presidency in 2017.
Francois Fillon and Alain Juppe will go head-to-head in the primary run-off Sunday.
Fillon, the winner of the first round last weekend, is the favorite to win the conservatives’ only spot at the presidential race. He was only six points short of the 50 percent threshold needed in the first round, which will make it harder for Juppe to catch up.
Juppe, 71, who campaigned for a French "happy identity", said he would not try to change or repeal the Socialist government's same-sex marriage law but would repeal payment of income tax at source that is currently making its way through parliament.
Fillon, 62, currently a Paris lawmaker, was prime minister under former President Nicolas Sarkozy from 2007 to 2012. He is a social conservative and Catholic who voted against same-sex marriage when it was introduced by Socialist President Francois Hollande.
During his campaign, Fillon, an admirer of late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, presented the most radical pro-business reform program -- vowing to cut a staggering 500,000 public sector jobs over five years.
In ministerial jobs under Jacques Chirac, he built a reputation as a compromise-seeker when dealing with unions. Fillon told the Financial Times he was determined to drop the soft approach after fully grasping the fragility of France’s finances.
“My program is not ideological,” he said, estimating it would reduce public spending from 57 to 49 percent of gross domestic product.
“It remains socialist,” he added. “At some point, unions have to feel there’s determination and strong will,” Fillon told the British newspaper. “There might be a showdown but the government must prepare for it.”
‘France isn’t multicultural’
During a two-hour primary debate on Friday, Fillon said he felt like he had won the “ideological battle,” insisting that France had never been more rightwing than now and his candidacy was, therefore, the perfect choice.
He accused Juppe of not “really want to change things.”
“He’s staying within the system, he just wants to improve it," Fillon said.
"My project is more radical,” Fillon added. “France isn’t a multicultural nation. When you come to someone’s house, by courtesy, you don’t take over.”
However, Juppe said that it is rich diversity that makes France special, and that the nation should celebrate it.
Before last week, Fillon was largely viewed as an underdog in the race. However he surged in the polls in the final weeks of the campaign after publishing a book on the fight against radical Islam, telling French daily Le Figaro: “There is no religious problem in France. There is a problem with Islam.”
Fillon also made controversial comments regarding colonialism in Africa when he said in August that France should not “be blamed just for wanting to share and spread its culture to the people of Africa”.
Russia, abortion issues
Fillon has called for a rapprochement with Russian President Vladimir Putin regarding Syria. After the U.S. presidential election, he welcomed a new alliance between Putin and Donald Trump.
Asked early in the campaign whether France should cooperate with Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad to fight Daesh, Fillon said France should unite with all possible forces, “democratic or not”.
During Friday’s debate, Juppe referred to his rival as Putin’s candidate. In his defense, Fillon dismissed a rapprochement with Russia would mean that France would have to turn away from its partners.
“France’s interest is not in changing alliances, turning to Russia instead of the U.S.,” he said.
As for the issue of abortion, Juppe -- a long-time defender of the practice -- said he believed that it was a fundamental right. Fillon said he was personally opposed to it, but would change nothing in the existing law.
The second round of the primary is open to all registered on the electoral roll and voters cast ballots for a €2 ($2.12) fee after signing a charter of values “to share the republican values of the right and center”.
This is the first time the French right has organized an open primary. The Socialists held their first in 2011 and will organize a second in January.
According to polls, the winner of Sunday’s Les Republicains run-off will compete in next year’s presidential election and is likely to make the presidential run-off, where he could face leader of the far-right Front National party Marine Le Pen.
The two-round presidential election will be held April 23 and May 7.