PARIS • French conservative front runner Francois Fillon has said he would be a president who would usher in "radical" change, and accused his opponent of only wanting to tinker, in the final debate before the second round of the right-wing primary race for president.
If Mr Fillon beats Mr Alain Juppe in tomorrow's primary, he is widely expected to become the next president, with polls showing he would likely face and defeat far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the run-off next May.
Mr Fillon, 62, the surprise runaway winner in the first round of the right-wing contest last weekend, underlined his intention to reform a country that he said was "on the verge of revolt".
"It is true that my project is more radical and perhaps more difficult," said Mr Fillon, whose economic ideas have been compared to those of the late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
A former prime minister, Mr Fillon wants to slash an eye-popping 500,000 public-sector jobs over five years and scrap the country's 35-hour work week to kick-start the sluggish French economy.
SAME OLD, SAME OLD
Alain Juppe does not really want to change things. He's staying within the system, he just wants to improve it.
MR FRANCOIS FILLON
KEEPING WHAT WORKS
Reform should not be a punishment but bring hope. The French social model exists, I want to consolidate it. We should not break it.
MR ALAIN JUPPE
Candidates' proposed reforms
Here is a look at some of the key economic policies of the two main conservative candidates running for president, Mr Francois Fillon and Mr Alain Juppe.
35-hour work week
They both propose a return to a legal work week of 39 hours in the public and private sectors, up from the 35-hour week.
Mr Juppe proposes trimming the headcount by 250,000 to 300,000 over five years and raising police numbers by 10,000.
Mr Fillon proposes cutting the headcount by 500,000.
Both propose raising the pensionable age of retirement to 65, from 62-63 now.
Both propose capping jobless benefits at 75 per cent of wages before the job was lost, followed by gradual decreases.
Mr Juppe says that he will cut public expenditure by €80 billion to €100 billion (S$151.1 billion).
Mr Fillon says he will cut public spending by €100 billion.
Mr Juppe targets a public-sector deficit of 0.1 per cent of gross domestic product in 2022, from a starting point of 3.2 per cent in 2017.
Mr Fillon is aiming for a public-sector deficit of zero in 2022, from a starting point of 4.7 per cent in 2017. Taxation Mr Fillon aims to cut taxes and welfare charges by €50 billion from the fourth quarter of 2017 while Mr Juppe will cut €28 billion net from the tax burden over five years.
Mr Juppe wants to raise the VAT sales tax by one percentage point, to add €6.5 billion to state coffers. Mr Fillon aims to raise the VAT by two percentage points.
Mr Juppe and Mr Fillon both propose scrapping the wealth tax, imposed on those with assets worth over €1.3 million, at a cost of €5 billion annually.
Mr Juppe plans to cut a range of payroll taxes paid by employers, and certain top-up rates of corporate profit tax at a cost of €2.8 billion.
Mr Fillon wants to cut taxes on profit to 25 per cent at a cost of €10 billion.
Little or no change for income tax. Mr Juppe targets €2 billion of income tax cuts.
Both candidates propose trimming taxation of income from capital.
He said his opponent, the 71-year-old centrist Mr Juppe, would not go far enough. "Alain Juppe does not really want to change things. He's staying within the system, he just wants to improve it," Mr Fillon said in the televised debate on Thursday.
Mr Juppe said cutting that many public-sector jobs "would not be possible". He favoured "deep and credible" reforms without the "brutality" of Mr Fillon's proposals.
"Reform should not be a punishment but bring hope. The French social model exists, I want to consolidate it," Mr Juppe said, referring to France's welfare safety net. "We should not break it."
He hit home in the debate with a jibe at Mr Fillon's perceived closeness to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who knew Mr Fillon when they were both prime ministers. Mr Putin praised him on Wednesday as a "great professional" and a "very principled person".
"This must be the first presidential election in which the Russian President chooses his candidate," Mr Juppe said.
Mr Fillon brushed off Mr Putin's comments but said the West must work more closely with Russia at a time when ties are at their worst since the Cold War. "Russia is a dangerous country if we treat it as we have treated it for the last five years," he said, adding that the real danger to Europe was the economic threat of "the Asian continent".
TV viewers gave victory in the debate to Mr Fillon, reflecting a poll on Wednesday showing he would win 65 per cent of votes tomorrow against 35 per cent for Mr Juppe.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS