By Richard Lough
PARIS (Reuters) – Francois Fillon heads into a runoff campaign for France’s conservative presidential ticket on Monday as favourite after winning the endorsement of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy whom he ousted from the race after a stunning late surge in polls.
Fillon is up against another former prime minister, Alain Juppe, who has a week to turn around his momentum-sapped campaign and win over the supporters of the other candidates.
But with Fillon only six points short of the 50 percent threshold needed in the first round and Sarkozy on his side, it looks a tall order for Juppe.
At stake is an almost certain place in the second round of next spring’s presidential election, pollsters say, with the French left in turmoil under the deeply unpopular President Francois Hollande. There the conservative challenger would in all likelihood face the leader of the resurgent far-right National Front party, Marine Le Pen.
“I believe more than ever that the people of France need to come together to turn the page of a disastrous five-year term that has demeaned our country and to block from power the National Front which would lead us into the worst of adventures,” a downcast-looking Juppe told his supporters.
A snap poll by Opinionway showed Fillon winning next Sunday’s head-to-head contest with 56 percent of support.
Fillon and Juppe have clashed most forcefully over Fillon’s proposals to slash the cost of government, most notably by axing 500,000 public sector jobs over five years.
Behind his still-boyish looks and refined demeanour, the 62-year-old Fillon is as close to a true economic and social conservative as they come in France.
“BREAK FROM BUREAUCRACY”
His proposals for market-oriented reforms — including scrapping the 35-hour working week and raising the retirement age — go beyond what his challenger advocates for a country where the state remains a powerful force in the economy, even for the centre-right.
“My fellow Frenchmen have told me, everywhere, they want a to break away from a bureaucratic system which saps their energy,” Fillon, an admirer of the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, told his campaign faithful.
Juppe, who had led the polls for weeks, last week dismissed Fillon’s proposal for public sector job cuts as impossible, saying a gentler reduction was needed. Juppe also proposes easing the tax burden on households.
On Sunday night, Juppe, a mild-mannered moderate, billed himself as the best placed candidate to defeat the National Front next May in another election that is shaping up to be a battle of strengths between weakened mainstream parties and rising populist forces.
While polls have consistently shown Juppe would easily beat Le Pen, pollsters had paid little attention to the scenario of a Fillon-Le Pen showdown, in a further sign of how unexpected his top spot on Sunday was.
One BVA poll in September did however show him beating the steely far-right leader by a margin of 61 percent of votes to 39 percent.
The ruling Socialists and their allies will hold their own primaries in January. Hollande, whose popularity ratings are abysmal, has yet to announce whether he will stand again.
(Editing by Sandra Maler)