World

Fillon wins big in French conservative presidential primaries

François Fillon, a socially conservative free-marketer, won France's centre-right presidential primaries on Sunday, setting up a likely showdown next year with far-right leader Marine Le Pen that the pollsters expect him to win.

Showdown appears likely next year against far-right leader Marine Le Pen

François Fillon acknowledges audience applause before delivering a speech after the official announcement of results in the conservative party's national primary election in Paris on Sunday. (Thibault Camus/Associated Press)

François Fillon, a socially conservative free-marketer, won France's centre-right presidential primaries on Sunday, setting up a likely showdown next year with far-right leader Marine Le Pen that the pollsters expect him to win.

With votes from four-fifths of 10,228 polling stations counted, Fillon, who went into Sunday's second-round run-off as a firm favourite, had won over 67 per cent of the vote in a head-to-head battle with another ex-prime minister, Alain Juppé.

"I must now convince the whole country our project is the only one that can lift us up," a visibly moved Fillon said at his campaign headquarters after Juppé conceded defeat.

French Socialists divided

All eyes now turn to the ruling Socialist party and to whether the deeply unpopular President François Hollande will decide to run for the left-wing ticket in his party's primaries in January, amid signs that his prime minister, Manuel Valls, is considering a bid of his own. A challenge to President Hollande could divide the Socialists further.

In past weeks, Valls has signalled he would wait for Hollande's decision on whether to seek a second term, and would make a presidential bid of his own only if the president decided to step aside.

However, in an interview published on Sunday in the Journal du Dimanche newspaper, Valls did not rule out running against Hollande in the Socialist party primaries in January.

The deeply unpopular President François Hollande, left, still has time to decide if he'd like to run for the left-wing ticket. His prime minister, Manuel Valls, right, shows signs of considering a bid of his own. (Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images)

"I will make my decision in all conscience ... whatever happens, the best interests of the country will influence my decision," he said.

Asked if he was putting pressure on Hollande, Valls replied: "This is a very serious and historic moment for the country. Each of us must be aware of that. I am putting pressure on everyone."​

France, the eurozone's second largest economy, has faced stubbornly high unemployment under Hollande, and the past two years of his term have been marked by Islamist militant attacks that have killed 230 people and focused attention on immigration and security concerns.

Left-wing election win unlikely

Opinion polls suggest neither he nor any left-wing candidate would make the run-off second round of the presidential election itself next May, leaving Fillon a clear run at the anti-EU, anti-immigration National Front leader Le Pen that the surveys predict him to win.

François Fillon now faces a likely showdown next year with far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen that the pollsters expect him to win. (Yoan Valat/EPA)

According to a Harris Interactive poll conducted on Sunday, Fillon would beat Le Pen in the presidential election's second round with 67 per cent of the votes versus 33 per cent for Le Pen, the poll said.

In the first round, Socialist President Hollande would only get nine per cent of the votes. Were he to run instead of Hollande, Valls would also only get nine per cent.

Their former economy minister Emmanuel Macron would get 13 to 14 per cent of the votes. Jean-Luc Melenchon, a leftist firebrand and a former Socialist party member, would get between 13 and 15 per cent.

Only the top two candidates in the first round go to the second round run-off.

Polls have nevertheless recently proven out of step with the voting patterns that saw Britain vote to leave the EU and Americans elect Donald Trump as president.

Test of anti-establishment anger 

Next year's French presidentials are shaping up to be another test of anti-establishment anger in Western countries.

Fillon, 62, came from behind in opinion polls over the past two weeks.

In last week's first round Les Républicains party primary he knocked out former president Nicolas Sarkozy, under whom he served as prime minister from 2007 to 2012, and pushed Juppé into second place.

A 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.

Fillon casts his ballot during the second round of the French centre-right presidential primary election in Paris. (Eric Feferberg/Reuters)

The Socialist primaries are due to take place in January. Hollande has two weeks to decide whether to take part in these primaries and run for re-election.

Sunday's Les Républicains primary victory win for Fillon and his hardline economic platform 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.

Calls for unity

Fillon outflanked Juppé and former president Nicolas Sarkozy after a campaign in which Juppé emerged looking soft and pandering to the left, and Sarkozy's rhetoric steered too close to extremism for some.

Enthusiastic for free-market principles in a country where state interference is the norm for governments of all political hues, Fillon is a rare fan of the late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

Juppé, left, shakes hands with Fillon after the conservative presidential primary in Paris on Sunday. (Christophe Ena/Associated Press)

He is from France's conservative Catholic right, has misgivings about gay marriage and believes immigrants should assimilate to French cultural values.

Juppé called for all factions to now come together. "I congratulate François Fillon," he told supporters. "To victory next year."

Sarkozy also called for unity.

"The moment has now arrived for our political family to rally together around François Fillon in order to guarantee that France gets the alternative to the current policies that it needs more than ever before in 2017," he said in a statement. 

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