PARIS • French voters were choosing a conservative presidential candidate yesterday in a primary contest whose winner is considered likely to become head of state in next year's election.
With the country left in disarray under the deeply unpopular President Francois Hollande, pollsters suggest that the centre-right presidential nominee will meet and defeat the National Front's eurosceptic, anti-immigration leader Marine Le Pen in a vote next May.
Until recently, former prime minister Alain Juppe, 71, a moderate conservative, appeared on track to win the nomination of the Les Republicains party and its centre-right allies.
However, in the past week, the contest has been transformed into a tight race between Mr Juppe, former president Nikolas Sarkozy, 61, and Mr Francois Fillon, 62, another former prime minister, according to the polls.
Mr Juppe has lost his lead to surges by two men to the right of him on the political spectrum.
Mr Sarkozy has sought to tap populist sentiment with some of his policy statements, whereas Mr Fillon is proposing tough measures to shake up the economy.
The French presidential vote is shaping up as another test of strength between weakened mainstream parties and rising populist forces. After Britain's vote to quit the European Union and Mr Donald Trump's surprise win in the United States this year, few are prepared to write off Ms Le Pen's chances.
An outright win in the conservative primary would require one of the seven candidates to secure more than half of the votes.
That is seen as very unlikely and, unless it does come to pass, a run-off between the two top contenders will take place next Sunday.
At the primaries, 1.138 million votes had been cast by midday in France, based on a count conducted at 67 per cent of the more than 10,000 polling stations, according to the president of the committee organising the vote.
Mr Fillon, who until last week was trailing far behind in the polls, has vowed to do away with the 35-hour working week, cut half a million public-sector jobs and slash the cost of government. Such 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 bills.
Before Mr Fillon's campaign gathered pace, the bruising contest had focused on the duel between Mr Juppe and Mr Sarkozy and their very different policy platforms. Both seek to counter the rise of populism threatening mainstream parties in Europe.
Against a backdrop where deadly militant attacks had triggered a year-old state of emergency, and in the midst of Europe's migrant crisis, Mr Sarkozy styles himself as the voice of France's "silent majority".
He vows to ban the Muslim veil from public universities, and wants to renegotiate EU treaties, reining in the powers of the European Commission and reforming the Schengen free-travel zone.
Mr Juppe has sought to galvanise the political centre-right, rejecting the proposals by Mr Sarkozy, which he says will deepen rifts between France's secular state and religious minorities.