By Pascale Antonie and Simon Carraud
PARIS (Reuters) – French voters were choosing a conservative presidential candidate on Sunday in a primary contest whose winner is seen as likely to become head of state in next spring’s election.
With the French left in disarray under the deeply unpopular President Francois Hollande, pollsters suggest that the center-right presidential nominee will meet and defeat the National Front’s eurosceptic, anti-immigration leader Marine Le Pen in a vote next May.
Former prime minister Alain Juppe, a moderate conservative, had until recently appeared on track to win the nomination of the Les Republicains party and its center-right allies.
But over the past week the contest has been transformed into a tight race between Juppe, former president Nikolas Sarkozy and Francois Fillon, another former prime minister, the polls show.
Juppe has lost his lead to surges by two men to the right of him on the political spectrum. Sarkozy has sought to tap into populist sentiment with some of his policy statements while Fillon is proposing tough measures to shake up the economy.
The French presidential vote is shaping up to be another test of strength between weakened mainstream parties and rising populist forces.
After Britain’s vote to quit the European Union and Donald Trump’s surprise U.S. election win this year, few are brave enough to write off Le Pen’s chances entirely.
There are other uncertainties in Sunday’s vote.
It is the first center-right primary to be held in France, and anyone who pays 2 euros ($2.12) and signs a paper of allegiance to the party’s values can take part. That means voting patterns are to some extent untested and leaves potential for tactical voting by left and far-right supporters as well.
“I’ll be voting Juppe, probably,” Dimitri Cournede, aged 34 from Abbeville in northern France and who considers himself a left-wing voter, told Reuters by telephone.
“I think its important to make a statement and send the message that we don’t want the right wing to associate with the FN, or at least to endorse their positions on immigration and stuff like that,” he added.
An outright win in Sunday’s primary would require one of the seven candidates to win over half of the votes. That is seen as very unlikely and a run-off between the two leading contenders will otherwise take place next Sunday, Nov. 27.
Early indications of the outcome could come within two hours of the end of voting at 1900 local time (1800 GMT), but a tight vote could take a definitive result much later into the night.
Fillon, who until last week trailed far behind in the polls, promises to do away with the 35-hour working week, cut half a million public sector jobs and slash the cost of government.
These policies are hard to sell in a country where proposals for market-oriented reform often arouse protests, but they resonate with voters of the right worried about stagnant economic growth and their income tax bill.
Until Fillon’s campaign gathered paced, the bruising campaign battle had focused on the duel between Juppe and Sarkozy and their very different policy platforms, both seeking to counter the rise of populism that threatens mainstream parties in Europe.
Against a backdrop of a year-old state of emergency after deadly militant attacks on home soil and in the midst of Europe’s migrant crisis, Sarkozy, 61, styles himself as the voice of France’s “silent majority”.
He vows to ban the Muslim veil from public universities and body-covering burkini swimsuits from beaches and wants to renegotiate EU treaties, reining in the powers of the European Commission and reforming the Schengen free-travel zone.
Juppe, 71, has sought to galvanize the political center-right, rejecting the “suicidal” identity politics of Sarkozy that he says will deepen rifts between France’s secular state and religious minorities.
But Juppe has struggled to rouse the passions of voters and all the momentum was against him on the eve of the vote.
Fillon headed Sarkozy’s conservative government between 2007 and 2012. He promises cost-cutting on a scale to which his rivals do not dare commit in a country with one of Europe’s highest public spending levels.
Much will depend on turnout at the 10,228 polling stations.
Juppe needs a high turnout beyond core party supporters to win. An Ifop-Fiducial survey on Thursday forecast an evenly split vote if Juppe and Fillon go head-to-head in a second round. Fillon would comfortably beat Sarkozy, the survey showed.
Should Sarkozy or Fillon emerge as her conservative opponent, polls and analysts suggest, Le Pen’s electoral prospects could improve.
(Writing by and additional reporting Richard Lough and Andrew Callus; Editing by Keith Weir)