10:54 Nov. 25, 2016
Rightwing candidates Fillon and Juppe clash over Russia policy
He was mocked by advisers to his former boss, ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, as "Mister Nobody". But François Fillon, a former prime minister and amateur racing driver, surged from nowhere to take a stunning lead in the French centre-right Republican primary on November 20th. He took 44% of the vote, next to 29% for the other qualifier and fellow ex-prime minister - Alain Juppé, writes The Economist.
Fillon secured one more victory on Thursday, when both former French prime ministers clashed in a TV debate ahead of Sunday's vote to decide who will be the French right's presidential candidate.
In an online survey by Elabe pollsters of 908 people who watched Thursday's debate, 71 percent of conservative and center-right voters found Fillon, an admirer of late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, more convincing than Juppe, according to Reuters.
France 24 notes that the biggest difference between the two men competing in France's conservative presidential primary is how they view Vladimir Putin's Russia. And whatever French voters decide in Sunday's primary runoff, it's pretty clear what Putin's preference would be.
Francois Fillon, who polls suggest is the front-runner, wants to end sanctions against Russia over its actions in Ukraine, work alongside Russia against the Islamic State group, and insists "Russia poses no threat to the West."
His rival, Alain Juppe, is sticking close to France's current line: keeping up pressure on Putin to make peace with Ukraine and to stop bombing Syrian opposition groups on behalf of President Bashar Assad.
If Fillon wins the nomination, that would put him in a powerful position heading into the April-May election - and his strongest challenger might turn out to be far-right leader Marine Le Pen, an open fan of Putin.