- Title: Race wide open as France ticks down to presidential primaries
- Date: 18th November 2016
- Summary: PARIS, FRANCE (NOVEMBER 18, 2016) (REUTERS) STREET WITH OPERA HOUSE FRENCH FLAG FLYING NEWSPAPER KIOSK NEWSPAPERS "LE PARISIEN" NEWSPAPER WITH HEADLINE READING (French): "THE CANDIDATES' GRADES: WHO IS THE WINNER OF THE DEBATES?" LEFT-LEANING "LIBERATION" NEWSPAPER FRONT PAGE SHOWING CARTOON OF SARKOZY, JUPPE AND FILLON'S FACES BITING EACH OTHER AND HEADLINE READING (French): "THE MANIFESTO OF THE RIGHT: 'THE BIG STEP BACKWARDS'"
- Embargoed: 3rd December 2016 16:33
- Keywords: France presidential election primary Sarkozy Filllon Juppe
- Location: PARIS / SAINT-CLOUD / BORDEAUX / NICE / MONTPELLIER, FRANCE
- City: PARIS / SAINT-CLOUD / BORDEAUX / NICE / MONTPELLIER, FRANCE
- Country: France
- Topics: Government/Politics,Elections/Voting
- Reuters ID: LVA00258Z3HVR
- Aspect Ratio: 16:9
- Story Text: The race to become the conservative candidate for the French presidency and likely favourite to win the presidential election itself next year, looked tighter than it has for months on Friday (November 18) with voting due to start in less than 48 hours.
Ahead of Sunday's vote -- which will put two people forward to a run-off second round a week later -- centrist ex-prime minister Alain Juppe was holding onto a shrinking lead.
Opinion polls show him winning both primary rounds and then going on to win a probable face-off against far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen next May and become head of state.
But Juppe is seeing his lead eroded by two men who sit to the right of him in the political spectrum - ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Fillon, who was Sarkozy's prime minister between 2007 and 2012.
Juppe took to the airwaves again on Friday morning to defend his unifying message and to deny charges that at 71, with years of frontline political experience, he risked becoming the Hillary Clinton of the campaign.
"I am not Hillary Clinton, it's not worth discussing that question at length, France is not America so let's wait for Sunday evening now. We've got the different positions. My position is clear: I am a man of the right, but an open-minded man of the right, open to the widest group of people possible because the reforms we'll have to make are going to be difficult, we'll need courage and perseverance and if we don't bring people together we won't manage that. And for me, bringing people together does not mean a race to the bottom against the National Front," Juppe told France Info.
Anyone can vote in the primary as long as they sign a charter of right wing values and pay two euros, and many left wing voters have vowed to participate to derail the presidential hopes of some of the more right wing candidates, including Sarkozy.
Dimitri Cournede is a 34-year-old Parisian who works for an agency which gets the long-term unemployed back to work. He describes himself as left wing and has voted for the Socialist party at the last two presidential elections, but now says he plans to participate in the primary for the right.
"We should seize this opportunity to have real choices. I think people are saying, 'We don't want to choose by default, the way we've been choosing by default over the past few years'. And that's the whole point," he told Reuters TV over a cup of chocolat chaud.
Lack of confidence in pollsters, who failed to predict Donald Trump's U.S. election win and Britain's vote to quit the European Union, has added to the uncertainty about the outcome of both the primaries and the election itself.
Particular focus is on Le Pen because she represents the same populist, anti-globalisation, anti-immigration positions that handed unexpected victories to Trump and Britain's Brexit camp.
Sarkozy has long been Juppe's main rival, but Fillon has come from behind in the opinion polls in recent days, making the race even harder to call. Fillon was seen as the winner in Thursday's (November 17) final debate before the weekend vote.
He had support from some in the streets of Paris on Friday who said that after Sarkozy's five year tenure, it was time to give someone else a try.
"Looking at what Nicolas Sarkozy did when he was president, and Juppe who held political positions too, I think Fillon would be capable of being a president for the whole of France," retired policeman Christian Demet said.
The centre ground is starting to look crowded after the announcement by former economy minister under President Francois Hollande, Emmanuel Macron, that he too intended to run.
A fresh face who has never held elected office, Macron will get Celine Fakih's vote.
"Changing things up does some good," she said.
Political expert at Sciences Po university, Bruno Cautres said that where Sarkozy could rely on a hardcore band of supporters to turn out in the primary, Juppe suffered from a slightly more colourless reputation which could undermine his candidacy.
"Any observer can see that in the meetings, the Sarkozy effect, the Sarkozy impact is still there, that Sarkozy still has the potential to excite the right wing voters, they still love him or hate him," he said.
"Since the beginning when Alain Juppe entered into politics, Alain Juppe has the profile of the clever guy, the civil servant, but not the exciting guy," he added.
A flurry of polls in recent days have pointed to a tightening race in the primaries. The one with the biggest sample of voters, a Cevipof and Ipsos-Sopra Steria survey, showed Juppe scoring 36 percent of votes in Sunday's opening round, five percentage points less than in October.
It gave Sarkozy 29 percent, qualifying for a head-to-head second round run-off against Juppe a week later. Fillon was up 10 points on 22 percent.
Significantly though, the poll said 23 percent of voters were still unsure of their choice.
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