France’s Fillon, buoyed by debate, heads for finish line

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PARIS: Conservative French presidential frontrunner Francois Fillon holds a final rally in Paris Friday as he seeks to clinch the nomination for the center-right Republicans in a primary vote this weekend.

Fillon, whose surge has taken commentators and pollsters by surprise, gave an assured performance in a televised debate on Thursday night against his centrist rival, long-time favourite Alain Juppe.

Fifty-seven percent of viewers judged Fillon to have been the most convincing, according to an independent poll for the  television channel of 908 people who followed the nearly two-hour exchange.

A total of 8.5 million people tuned in to hear the two ex-prime ministers stress their differences on public sectors cuts, relations between France and Russia, and their views on multiculturalism.

Fillon will hold a rally in Paris on Friday evening where he hopes to draw up to 10,000 people, while Juppe is campaigning in the city of Nancy in eastern France.

Both men are already looking ahead to their rivals in next year's election that will feature resurgent far-right leader Marine Le Pen, as well as a Socialist party candidate and independents.

"I think I am best placed with my programme to beat Marine Le Pen," Juppe said on Friday, referring to the nationalist and anti-immigration boss of the National Front.

Thursday night's debate cast into stark relief the differences between the candidates, with Fillon often portraying 71-year-old Juppe as not ambitious enough and Juppe accusing his rival of being unrealistic.

"It is true that my project is more radical and perhaps more difficult," said Fillon, whose economic ideas have been compared to those of late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

The 62-year-old devout Catholic wants to slash an eye-popping 500,000 public sector jobs over five years and scrap the 35-hour working week in a bid to kick-start the sluggish French economy.

He is also more socially conservative, believes France is "on the verge of revolt", and takes a harder line on Islam in France. Juppe has stressed how many on the far-right are in favour of his rival's proposals.

"No, France is not a multi-cultural country. France has a history, a language and a culture which have naturally been enriched from outside," Fillon said on Thursday during the debate.

Seeking fresh momentum after a difficult week, Juppe appeared to struggle to dominate his opponent but hit home with a jibe at Fillon's closeness to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"This must be the first presidential election in which the Russian president chooses his candidate," Juppe said, referring to praise by Putin for Fillon on Wednesday.

Fillon believes the European Union and the United States "provoked" Russia by expanding in eastern Europe and he has criticised sanctions imposed on Moscow after Putin's invasion of Ukraine in 2014.

He again targeted what he called the "absurd" policy of Socialist President Francois Hollande, who has confronted Putin over Russia's annexation of Ukraine and alleged war crimes by Russian forces in Syria.

Le Pen is currently forecast to come first or second in the first round of the election on April 23 with around 30 percent of the vote, but then fail in the run-off on May 7.

But following the wave of populism that led British voters to choose to leave the European Union and swept Donald Trump to victory in the United States, no-one is writing off the National Front leader's chances.