Fillon leads French right-wing poll

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon gestures as he gives a speech during a debate on the issue of national identity at the Institut Montaigne in Paris, December 4, 2009. France has been unusually preoccupied recently by its national identity. The French government is now revisiting the theme with three months of open debate that will culminate in a list of proposals to be presented next February. The inscription on the lectern reads "What is it to be French?" REUTERS/Benoit Tessier (FRANCE POLITICS) Picture: BENOIT TESSIER
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon gestures as he gives a speech during a debate on the issue of national identity at the Institut Montaigne in Paris, December 4, 2009. France has been unusually preoccupied recently by its national identity. The French government is now revisiting the theme with three months of open debate that will culminate in a list of proposals to be presented next February. The inscription on the lectern reads “What is it to be French?” REUTERS/Benoit Tessier (FRANCE POLITICS)
Picture: BENOIT TESSIER

Former premier surges to lead in presidential primary

The surprise winner of the first round of France’s right-wing presidential primary, conservative ex-premier Francois Fillon, was the runaway favourite yesterday to win the contest expected to decide France’s next leader.

Fillon, who has pledged deep economic reforms, pulled off a stunning upset on Sunday, surging from behind to knock his former boss, Nicolas Sarkozy, out of the race and beat longtime favourite Alain Juppe into a distant second.

Fillon and Juppe, also a former prime minister, will go head to head in a run-off on Sunday, with the winner expected to meet far-right leader Marine le Pen in the second round of the presidential election in May.

As Fillon faced immediate attacks from the left as “an ultraconservative”, former centre right prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin also warned that his programme of cuts was unworkable.

“There is no chance of implementing reforms through brute force,” Raffarin, an ally of Juppe, said yesterday.

Polls show Le Pen being beaten at the final hurdle but her rivals have warned that all bets are off in a country where anti-elite sentiment that propelled Donald Trump to the White House is also running high.

Sarkozy’s defeat at the hands of Fillon, a man he once nick named “Mr Nobody”, marked what appeared to be an ignominious end to the ex-president’s 40 years in politics.

His hard-right campaign and failure to enact many of his promises when in power from 2007 to 2012 repelled many voters in his camp.

Conceding defeat for the second time in four years, an unusually humble Sarkozy said it had not been easy for his family to live with a man who “arouses so many strong feelings”.

“It is time for me to begin a life with less public and more private passions,” he said, endorsing Fillon in the second round.

Fillon, who was premier throughout Sarkozy’s presidency, emerged as a compromise choice between Sarkozy and Juppe, whose reform agenda is seen by many conservatives as too timid.

With nearly all the votes counted yesterday, he had won 44.1% of the vote in France’s first right-wing primary, which drew about four million voters, far more than expected.

Juppe, a moderate who campaigned as a unifier, polled 28.6%, ahead of Sarkozy (20.6%).

Voters appear to have been won over by Fillon’s assured performances in the pre-vote television debates, preferring him to the brashness of Sarkozy, 61, or the technocratic, consensus-driven image of71-year-old Juppe.

Fillon, 62, told his ecstatic camp that his programme was one of hope and strong change after five years of Socialist rule.

In economic terms he is seen as a Thatcherite, and has pledged to cut half a million jobs from France’s bloated civil service and increase the working week from 35 to 39hours for both public and private sector workers.
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