, Paris, France, Nov 20 – The French right voted Sunday in the first round of a US-style primary that is widely expected to decide the country’s next leader.
The ballot was shaping up as a tight three-way race between ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy and former premiers Alain Juppe and Francois Fillon.
But far-right leader Marine Le Pen has cast a shadow over the two-month-long contest because whoever wins the nomination is tipped to face — and beat — her in the decisive presidential run-off next May.
With France’s ruling left bitterly divided, the campaign has been heavily influenced by the populist forces behind Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s shock victory in the US election.
A last-minute surge in opinion polls by Fillon, who was prime minister under Sarkozy, indicated that he is in contention to grab one of the two spots for next Sunday’s runoff for the candidacy.
Juppe was the early frontrunner but Sarkozy has gained ground, partly by playing to populist themes.
The pro-business Fillon has made the fastest progress, surging up the opinion polls in recent days to be neck-and-neck with his two main rivals.
Anyone who pays two euros ($2.1) and signs a declaration of adherence to “the values of the centre and the right” can take part in the vote, the first right-wing primary to be held in France.
Adding to the suspense is the participation of left-wing voters thought to be seeking to block Sarkozy, who remains a highly divisive figure in France four years after losing to Socialist candidate Francois Hollande.
Turnout was high with more than 2.5 million voters registered at 1600 GMT, two hours before polling stations closed, officials said.
The first indications of the outcome are not expected before 2130 GMT.
One Socialist voter, a sports teacher in his 50s who identified himself only as Eric, said he was taking part to vote “against Sarkozy”.
“I’m fed up of that guy, he thinks he is all-powerful and he has been involved in too many scandals. Juppe, despite everything else, is the opposite,” he told AFP as he cast his vote in the Paris suburb of Pantin.
– Sarkozy scandals –
In a final TV debate among the seven candidates on Thursday, Sarkozy angrily ducked a question about fresh claims that he received millions in funding from the late Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi towards his 2007 campaign.
The case is one of several investigations to dog Sarkozy since he left office after what was dubbed a “bling-bling” presidency because of his flashy lifestyle.
Nicolas Meunier, a 40-year-old voter in Bordeaux, the southwest city where Juppe is mayor, said his natural politics were of the far left, but he had come out to vote “to support democracy after what we’ve seen recently with Trump and Brexit”.
He said he was supporting the only woman among the seven, former environment minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet.
Sarkozy, Juppe and Fillon have broadly similar programmes, underpinned by pledges to reinforce domestic security in a country still under a state of emergency following the deadly jihadist attacks.
They also share a desire to reinforce European borders and reduce immigration, while tax cuts also loom large.
Ultimately, the choice will come down to style.
Sarkozy has emphasised his tough-guy credentials, saying it makes him a better choice than the mild-mannered Juppe to safeguard France’s position in an uncertain world following Trump’s election.
Fillon, who is popular in the business world, has promised “radical” economic measures but is the most conservative of the three on social issues.
The nomination of the right-wing candidate on November 27 is expected to trigger an announcement from Hollande on whether he intends to bid for re-election despite the lowest popularity ratings of any post-war French president.
On Wednesday, Hollande’s former economy minister Emmanuel Macron, 38, announced he would stand as an independent, further confusing the picture on the left.