Fillon keeps momentum after French primary debate
By Eric Maurice
Thursday evening's debate (24 November) between the two candidates for the centre-right primary election has laid bare differences on the pace of reforms, multiculturalism and Russia, with favourite Francois Fillon holding the upper hand.
Fillon, who came ahead in the first round of the Republicans party's election last Sunday, and rival Alain Juppe held a polite and sometimes detailed debate where the EU was barely mentioned.
A 62-year-old Catholic conservative, Fillon was considered the most convincing in several polls after the debate. He remains the favourite to gain the party's nomination for next year's presidential election, in the second round on Sunday.
"It is true that my project is more radical, perhaps more difficult," said Fillon, who in recent days has been labelled "a French Thatcher".
He said that the French social model, where 6 million people are unemployed, "doesn't exist anymore" and that "France is on the verge of revolt". He said he would "get things moving in the first three months" of his term.
His programme includes cutting spending by €100 billion in five years, cutting 500,000 public jobs, cutting corporation and income taxes while raising VAT and abolishing the 35-hour working week.
Juppe, who wants smaller spending and tax cuts, says it wouldn't be feasible to cut so many public sector jobs, adding "you cannot ask civil servants to work more and earn less."
The two candidates also opposed each other on migration and the state of French society.
Juppe, who campaigned under the slogan "happy identity", says "the identity of France is diversity," while Fillon says "France is not a multicultural nation."
Fillon said that to address the country's identity crisis he would have school history books rewritten to introduce a "grand narrative" including figures like the first French king Clovis, Joan of Arc, or Voltaire.
One of the most striking points of difference between the two candidates was Russia.
After officials in Moscow, including president Vladimir Putin, praised Fillon in the wake of the primary's first round, Juppe quipped that he was "surprised that, for the first time, the Russian leader chooses his candidate."
He said Russia was a "partner," with which a pan-European security agreement could be negotiated, but that "we must be able to tell some truths to Russia" and that Moscow must respect the Minsk agreement in Ukraine.
'Absurd' Russia policy
Fillon, for his part, said that French policy towards Russia in the last five years was "absurd" and that "we should sit around a table with Russia without asking permission with the US to reforge a bond."
He said that Russia was "packed with nuclear weapons, and therefore a dangerous country if we treat it as we have done for five years."
But he added that Russia was "not the main threat to Europe," pointing instead to Asian economies.
He said, however, that he did not approve the annexation of Crimea by Russia and that "the interest of France is obviously not to change alliance."
Voters from the right and centre will choose between Fillon and Juppe on Sunday for presidential candidate.
More than four million people voted in the first round last Sunday, where former president Nicolas Sarkozy was knocked out and Fillon proved opinion polls wrong.
Although Fillon is now leading polls against Juppe, the outcome of the second round remains uncertain and will likely depend on turnout, especially from centrist voters, of which many participated in the first round mainly to stymie Sarkozy's run.