France’s Fillon Leading in Conservative Presidential Primary

By The Associated Press
The Associated Press
The Associated Press
November 20, 2016 Updated: November 20, 2016

PARIS—Former French prime minister Francois Fillon had the largest share of votes in early returns Sunday from the first round of the conservative primary for next year’s presidential election.

Thierry Solere, president of the organization commission of the primary, said Fillon took 42.8 percent of the first 690,000 votes that have been countedout of over 2.5 million voters.

Another former prime minister, Alain Juppe, had 26 percent, closely followed by ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy with 24.4 percent.

The two candidates with the most votes will compete in the second round on Nov. 27.

The campaign had been marked by concerns about immigration and Islamic extremism.

Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States was on many voters’ minds, as France faces its own wave of populism that has emboldened an outsider with an eye on the presidency. Countries around Europe are facing similar anger at immigrants and the political establishment, and are watching the French presidential race closely.

Across France on Sunday, lines were long at many polling stations as voters chose among seven candidates.

Sarkozy, 61, Fillon, 62, and Alain Juppe, 72, had been expected lead the balloting.

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy speaks as part of his campaign for the leadership of his conservative UMP party in Lambersart, northern France, on Sept. 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)
Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy speaks as part of his campaign for the leadership of his conservative UMP party in Lambersart, northern France, on Sept. 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)

The conservative nominee is expected to have strong chances of winning the April-May presidential election, because traditional rivals on the left have been weakened by Socialist Francois Hollande’s troubled presidency.

The conservative candidate’s main challenger may turn out to be far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who is hoping anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-establishment sentiment can propel her to the presidency. Le Pen, official candidate of her once-pariah National Front party, did not take part in the conservative primary.

The conservatives’ campaign has focused on immigration and security concerns following recent attacks by Islamic extremists.

The same issues are being hotly debated throughout Europe. Concerns about migration helped drive Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, and are weighing on upcoming elections elsewhere. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to announce Sunday her plans to seek a fourth term next year, as she seeks to counter populism after opening her country’s doors to refugees.

Other candidates in the French vote were Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet—the only woman on the conservative ballot; former government ministers Bruno Le Maire and Jean-Francois Cope, and Parliament member Jean-Frederic Poisson.

Sarkozy hoped to pull votes from people attracted to Le Pen. He has called for stricter immigration rules across Europe, and vowed to ban Muslim women from wearing headscarves at universities and possibly elsewhere. Hijabs already are banned in French schools, like all other visible signs of religion in strictly secular France.

Fillon—who has enjoyed a recent boost in popularity thanks to his image of authority and seriousness compared to Sarkozy’s more brazen demeanor—pledges to organize a referendum on a quota system for immigrants.

In contrast, Juppe is advocating a more peaceful vision of French society, based on respect for religious freedom and ethnic diversity.

On the economic front, all candidates want to lower taxes—especially on businesses—and reduce the number of public servants. The leading candidates also agree on giving managers more flexibility by loosening the 35-hour weekly limit on employees’ working time.