Several million French people will vote on Sunday in the first round of the conservative Les Républicains presidential primary.
The winner of the November 27th runoff, between the two leading candidates, is considered likely to be elected president of France six months from now.
The party opted for an open primary, which means that for a €2 fee, any registered voter can cast a ballot, after signing a paper saying he or she “share(s) the republican values of the right and centre”.
The former president Nicolas Sarkozy commands a hard core of support within Les Républicains, but is viscerally rejected by centrist and leftist proponents of "TSS" or "Tout Sauf Sarkozy" (Anybody But Sarkozy).
Socialists have threatened to vote in the primary to prevent Sarkozy reaching the presidential ballot next spring. If polls show that non-Républicains supporters comprised a majority of voters in the primary, it is feared Sarkozy will contest the result.
Following the Brexit and US presidential elections, confidence in opinion polls is low. Yet they remain the sole method of gauging opinion. Until this week, surveys indicated the former prime minister Alain Juppé would face Sarkozy in the run-off, and that Juppé would carry the nomination.
Then François Fillon, who was Sarkozy’s prime minister, made a sudden surge in the polls, taking votes from the frontrunner Juppé while Sarkozy remained stable.
An Ifop poll published on Friday showed Juppé leading the first round with 31 per cent, followed by Sarkozy with 30 per cent and Fillon at 27 per cent.
Four other candidates have virtually no chance of making it to the runoff.
The economic daily Les Échos quoted an old Dutch saying: "When two dogs fight for a bone, the third runs away with it."
The failure of newer, younger candidates to break through, and the fact that the three frontrunners are a former president and two former prime ministers, seems to indicate a desire for a president of stature.
Shadow of far right
The prestige of the French presidency has suffered under the incumbent, François Hollande, says Guillaume Tabard of Le Figaro. He predicts that "A return to dignity and grandeur will be one of the main criteria of the 2017 election".
The ability to defeat Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National, is another important criterion. Since his 2007 campaign, Sarkozy has adopted FN-like policies on the key issues of immigration and Islam.
Sarkozy calls himself "the spokesman of the silent majority" and has stepped up anti-elite rhetoric since the victory of US president-elect Donald Trump. Asked by Le Figaro why he "runs after" the FN, Sarkozy said, "If the republican right refuses to listen to popular fears, it will end up like the right in Austria, England and the US: overtaken!"
Juppé has adopted a different strategy, arguing that his strength in the polls and the support of centrists such as François Bayrou – who rejects Sarkozy – make him best placed to defeat Le Pen. "I am the only candidate who would come in ahead of her in the first round, and defeat her by a large margin in the second," Juppé told Le Monde.
Trump’s election featured in the first question in a 2½-hour debate on Thursday night. “Trump won based on the cumulative failures of Bush and Obama,” said Jean-François Copé, another candidate for the Républicains nomination, who fought an ugly battle for control of the party with Fillon in 2012. “I’m afraid Le Pen may win based on the failures of Sarkozy and Hollande.”
Juppé predicted three "shocks" would arise from Trump's presidency, in trade, defence and sustainable development. Sarkozy advocated a "Buy European Act" and hoped that a US withdrawal from the international scene would "mark the return of France and Europe on the international stage".
France’s problems with the US did not start with Trump, Fillon said, blaming Washington for “sowing chaos in the Middle East by invading Iraq” and installing an anti-missile shield on Russia’s border.
Sarkozy repeatedly vaunted his presidential experience, for example in ordering the intervention in Libya. "Our strategic interests are at stake in Syria, because it's the Mediterranean and if we don't resolve it, we'll have an unimaginable flood of refugees. Once we wipe Islamic State off the map, we must deal with the conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims," he said.
When he was president, in 2010, on one occasion Sarkozy was unable to say if al-Qaeda was Sunni or Shia.
Fillon, who has a soft spot for Vladimir Putin's Russia, expressed his concern for Syrian Christians and advocated working with Syrian president Bashar al Assad.
Juppé said fighting Islamic State was the “absolute priority” but maintained there could be no peace in Syria while Assad remained in power.
Sarkozy mocked Juppé’s concept of “happy identity”, accusing his chief rival of failing “to measure the incandescence of the French over migration”.
Sarkozy’s pledge to end family reunification would do little to resolve the problem, Juppé said.
The leading candidates have all promised to abolish the wealth tax imposed on those with assets of more than €1.3 million. With the exception of Sarkozy, they want to raise VAT to compensate for tax cuts for business. Sarkozy said Fillon “underestimates how fed up the middle class are with taxes”.
On most issues, Sarkozy is farther to the right than his rivals. He would crack down on Muslim veils, separate hours for men and women in public pools and halal food in school canteens. He also says he would lock up more than 10,000 Muslims on the “S” (for “security”) watchlist, while Juppé and Fillon say the rule of law must be prevail.
Les Républicains primary: the three leading candidates
Alain Juppé (71) is the oldest presidential candidate. As prime minister in 1995, his attempt to reform special retirement regimes provoked mass strikes. He has also served as foreign, defence and environment minister. His worst campaign gaffe was referring to Prisunic supermarket, which ceased to exist 15 years ago.
Nicolas Sarkozy (61) was president of France from 2007 until 2012. Sarkozy's Rolex watches and marriage to singer Carla Bruni earned him a reputation as the "bling-bling" president. He has been implicated in repeated financial scandals and reacted angrily this week to fresh allegations that Muammar Gadafy helped finance his 2007 campaign.
François Fillon (62) developed a terrible relationship with Sarkozy during his five years as Sarkozy's prime minister. Fillon published a studious, in depth plan for reforming the French economy which has largely inspired his rivals. After a sudden surge in polls this week, he stands a chance of making it to the runoff.