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Touted as the country’s centre and right-wing presidential primary, the contest in fact includes six members of the main opposition Les Républicains party, and the president of the ultra-conservative Christian Democratic Party (PCD).
Besides Sarkozy and Juppé, the presidential hopefuls include former prime minister François Fillon, MP Bruno Le Maire, MP and former UMP party chief Jean-François Copé, MP Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet and the PCD’s Jean-Frédéric Poisson. (See candidates’ pictures in slideshow below).
The Les Républicains party and its centrist allies will hold two rounds of voting to select their nominee on November 20 and 27. The stakes are high with polls showing that the winner of the primary would be the clear favourite to win the election next May.
National identity and Islam have emerged as key themes in the French centre-right contest, which has echoes of US Republican nominee Donald Trump’s campaign for the White House.
“The candidates all agree on the economy,” Thomas Guénolé, a political scientist and author of a book on Sarkozy’s comeback said, referring to their consensus on cutting taxes and relaxing France’s 35-hour working week.
Guénolé said the primary candidates will likely clash over the place of Islam in French society, immigration and fighting terrorism on the campaign trail.
President François Hollande is yet to confirm if he will stand for re-election as the Socialist party’s candidate in a bid to defy his historically low approval ratings.
On the far-right, the National Front is prepared for battle, with its leader Marine Le Pen widely forecast to win the first round of voting in April and then fail in the second round against a mainstream candidate.
Juppé, 71, France’s most popular politician, has been the favourite to emerge victorious from the start, but Sarkozy has nearly closed the gap with hardline proposals designed to woo voters reeling from a string of jihadist attacks.
The 61-year-old politician, who led France from 2007 to 2012, has vowed a “merciless” fight against the Islamist extremists who have killed 238 people nationwide since January 2015.
Declaring French identity to be under attack, he has declared war on the Islamic burkini swimsuit, the wearing of the Muslim headscarf in universities and other practices he sees as “un-French”.
Juppé, a moderate who served two years as premier under Jacques Chirac and also was foreign minister under Sarkozy, has taken the opposite approach.
Accusing Sarkozy of “pouring fuel on the fire” with his calls for a state ban on the burkini, Juppé has tried to sell voters on what he sees as a “happy”, secure French identity.
Vowing to knit together a fractured nation, he has promised to “reach out” to the vast majority of Muslims who adhere to France’s strict secular values.