PARIS • Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy and political veteran Alain Juppe are heading into tomorrow's presidential primary as front runners in a contest that may determine the next occupant of the Elysee Palace.
The Republican primary winner is likely to face National Front leader Marine Le Pen in the presidential run-off next May, given that incumbent Socialist Francois Hollande is the least popular president in half a century.
Mr Juppe was prime minister two decades ago while Mr Sarkozy is attempting an unprecedented comeback after Mr Hollande defeated him in 2012.
Less than two weeks after Mr Donald Trump won power in the United States, the presidential race in France has become a closely watched battle between populist and establishment forces that could presage yet another major political upset.
The first primary tomorrow will reduce the field of seven Republican candidates to two; those two will then face off a week later.
"The person who wins the nomination on the right has a very strong chance of becoming France's next president," said Mr Francois Miquet-Marty, head of polling company Viva Voice. "Much more is at stake than just the choice of personality. There is a realisation that France needs some sort of shock therapy and it's about selecting politicians who can implement that."
Whoever wins office next May will take over a country where growth and employment lag behind European averages and where terrorists have killed more than 200 people in less than two years, stoking religious tension and triggering introspection about France's national identity. The next president will also have to grapple with Britain's departure from the European Union and with the Trump presidency.
All the Republican candidates broadly agree on economic policy. Where they clash is on what it means to be French in the face of a refugee crisis.
Mr Juppe, 71, has touted the idea of a "happy identity" for the French, while Mr Sarkozy, 61, is all for stopping Muslim women from wearing full-body swimwear because it undermines French values. He has also called on immigrants to recognise the Gauls as their ancestors. Former prime minister Francois Fillon, also a primary contender, is somewhere in between.
Dealing with a Trump administration was a theme as the primary candidates held their third televised debate on Thursday. While Mr Juppe said Europe needed to prepare for "three shocks, on trade, defence and climate", Mr Sarkozy called for the protection of French industry and agriculture. "We must not be naive," he said.
For months, Mr Juppe has registered in polls as the candidate most favoured by French voters, while Mr Sarkozy has led among voters who identify as Republicans. The former president's popularity within his own political family may see him prevail. As the Brexit vote and Mr Trump's victory demonstrated, polls have failed repeatedly to correctly measure voter intentions. Mr Fillon pulled even with Mr Sarkozy in a survey this week.
About a third of voters currently back Mr Juppe in the first round of the primary, with Mr Fillon and Mr Sarkozy both garnering 25 per cent support, according to an OpinionWay poll of 828 people between Nov 13 and 15. Mr Juppe's support has slipped, while Mr Fillon's has surged and Mr Sarkozy's has held stable.