- Title: "Third man" Fillon may cause upset at French presidential primaries
- Date: 17th November 2016
- Summary: NICE, FRANCE (FILE - OCTOBER 15, 2016) (REUTERS) RIVAL CANDIDATE, ALAIN JUPPE, AND FILLON AT CEREMONY COMMEMORATING NICE ATTACKS
- Embargoed: 2nd December 2016 12:00
- Keywords: Fillon Sarkozy Juppe France presidential primary election vote
- Location: PARIS AND NICE, FRANCE
- City: PARIS AND NICE, FRANCE
- Country: France
- Topics: Government/Politics,Elections/Voting
- Reuters ID: LVA00758U1IYV
- Aspect Ratio: 16:9
- Story Text: PLEASE NOTE: THIS EDIT CONTAINS MATERIAL WHICH WAS ORIGINALLY 4:3
Until recently, a primary to pick the French right's candidate for president seemed sewn up already, expected to boil down to a straight fight between former president Nicolas Sarkozy and one of his ministers Alain Juppe.
But polls in recent days suggest a sharp rise in support for Francois Fillon - an economic liberal who wants to rewrite the socialist government's gay marriage law.
One Opinionway poll out on Tuesday showed Fillon neck-and-neck with Sarkozy in the first round of the primaries to take place on Sunday and then potentially beating Juppe in the second round a week later to take the nomination.
Others have been more moderate with the most recent survey by university Sciences Po's political research centre giving him 22 percent - still some way behind the two frontrunners.
Fillon himself said on Wednesday (November 16) he was sceptical of the polling, but that the momentum was with his campaign.
"I have always distanced myself from the polls, and that's just as true when the numbers are going up. But I would simply say that the closer you get to an election, the more the potential voters come forward, the French become interested in the primary, and you have candidates in the television debates who present themselves as who they really are, not just the communication strategy they've chosen. So it's true that the polls are more accurate eight days before the primary than six months before," he told RTL radio.
Fillon was prime minister throughout Sarkozy's tenure at the Elysee Palace, defending the party line and even finding time to go jogging with the boss.
But he has distanced himself over the course of the campaign, saying that Sarkozy does not deserve a second chance.
"The French people can see that they have the choice between a candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, who is offering a step backwards, who has already been president, and I have always thought that it's very hard in our country - no matter what the individual's strengths may be - to go back to being president after being beaten. And on the other side we have a candidate (Juppe) who is extremely cautious, who has a manifesto that basically goes in the right direction but which doesn't go far enough in sorting things out," he said.
"I think it (the poll bounce) is the reward for his consistency, for his transparency and for his rigour. And I think people have started to realise that he hasn't changed his mind, and that he seems reassuring," said one potential voter in Paris, Franck, on Thursday.
Fillon has espoused Thatcherite free-market policies in determinedly dirigiste France, and wants to cut up to 600,000 public sector jobs - even more than Sarkozy, but is also seen as a "lightweight" version of his former boss on security and immigration although he is more conservative on gay marriage and other social issues.
The primary is open to any voter who wants to pay two euros and sign a paper of allegiance. Left-wing voters are expected to take part to try to influence the outcome, a potential boost for Juppe, but also making the result hard to call.
Despite the excitement surrounding Fillon's last minute challenge, political expert at Sciences Po, Bruno Cautres, believes a Juppe/Sarkozy final remains the most likely scenario.
What could be interesting, is where Fillon's votes go for the second knockout round after a bruising campaign where he has criticised both of his main rivals, Cautres said.
"Francois Fillon's score could have a very big importance because we know that if Francois Fillon finally would say 'Vote for Juppe' or 'Vote for Sarkozy', it's going to help one of the two," he told Reuters on Tuesday.
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