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Two former French prime ministers, Alain Juppé and François Fillon, clashed on Thursday over multiculturalism and foreign policy on live television, three days ahead of the country’s conservative presidential primary run-off.
The stakes were high as the two members of the main opposition Les Républicains party faced off in a final debate, with the winner of Sunday’s vote likely to become France’s next president, according to opinion polls.
While the two candidates largely agreed on cutting civil servant jobs and lowering taxes on French businesses, they presented contrasting visions of French society.
“When we go to somebody’s house, we don’t try to take power,” Fillon said, adding that he rejected the idea that France was or should become a multicultural society and that immigrants should “respect our cultural heritage”.
Juppe disagreed, arguing that France’s identity was largely based on its cultural diversity. “We come from different ancestors, we have different skin colours, and different religions, and that is our strength,” he said.
Fillon won the first-round of the primary election on November 20, garnering 44 percent of votes cast. Juppé, touted as the frontrunner throughout the campaign, finished a far second with 29 percent support, nevertheless qualifying for the run-off.
Five other presidential hopefuls were eliminated following the results – including former presidentNicolas Sarkozy, who endorsed Fillon in a concession speech.
President François Hollande’s ruling Socialist Party will hold its own primary contest in January, with the first round of France’s presidential elections set for April 23.
Hollande and other members of the Socialist Party are suffering from low approval ratings. Opinion polls show that either Juppé or Fillon are likely to face far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the second round of voting on May 7.
Putin enters debate
Numerous moderator questions largely kept the two candidates from attacking each other directly, but Juppé managed to throw some jabs at Fillon over ties with Russia and on the raging civil war in Syria.
Juppé feigned alarm that Russian President Vladimir Putin had weighed in on France’s election on Wednesday by backing Fillon, a candidate who favours closer ties between Paris and Moscow.
“We are not going to change our alliances,” Fillon shot back, denying he wanted to upset ties with the United States and other European partners. But he also rejected the idea that Russia was a threat to the West.
“The real danger is not Russia, the real danger is economic and it is called Asia,” Fillon said, insisting France and Russia should “sit down around the same table” with the aim of improving bilateral relations.
Fillon said that economic sanctions led by France’s Hollande and other EU leaders over Russia’s annexation of Crimea had completely failed, only hurting French farmers who had been affected by retaliatory trade measures.
Juppé repeated past claims that it was impossible to envision a post-conflict Syria in which President Bashar al-Assad remained in power. Throughout the primary campaign Fillon has said it was imperative to negotiate with Assad to beat back the Islamic State group and to defend Christian minorities in Syria.
On Thursday, Fillon was more nuanced, saying a strong coalition that included Russia and Iran – two of Assad’s strongest allies – was needed to thwart the jihadist group.