PARIS (AP) — French conservatives were voting in a nationwide primary Sunday to choose their nominee for next year’s presidential election, after a campaign marked by concerns about immigration and Islamic extremism.
Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States is on many voters’ minds, as France faces its own wave of populism that has emboldened an outsider with an eye on the presidency.
Seven candidates are competing in the first round of the conservatives’ primary Sunday, and a runoff will be held between the top two vote-getters a week later. The three leading candidates are former president Nicolas Sarkozy, 61, and former prime ministers Francois Fillon, 62, and Alain Juppe, 72.
The winner is expected to have strong chances of claiming victory in the April-May presidential election, because traditional rivals on the left have been weakened by Socialist Francois Hollande’s troubled presidency.
The conservative candidate’s main challenger may turn out to be far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who is hoping anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-establishment sentiment can propel her to the presidency.
Le Pen, official candidate of her once-pariah National Front party, is not taking part in the conservative primary.
The conservatives’ campaign has focused on immigration — hotly debated throughout Europe — and security concerns following recent attacks by Islamic extremists.
Sarkozy hopes to pull votes from people attracted to Le Pen. He has called for stricter immigration rules across Europe, and vowed to ban Muslim women from wearing headscarves at universities and possibly elsewhere.
Hijabs already are banned in French schools, like all other visible signs of religion in strictly secular France.
Fillon — who has enjoyed a recent boost in popularity thanks to his image of authority and seriousness compared to Sarkozy’s more brazen demeanor — pledges to organize a referendum on a quota system for immigrants.
In contrast, Juppe is advocating a more peaceful vision of French society, based on respect for religious freedom and ethnic diversity.
On the economic front, all candidates want to lower taxes —especially on businesses— and reduce the number of public servants. They also all agree to reverse the 35-hour workweek.
This is the first time French conservatives are holding a primary, making outcomes hard to predict. Candidates previously were designated via an internal procedure.
The Socialist Party organized France’s first-ever primary in 2011, a vote won by Francois Hollande, who went on to win the French presidency the following year.
Hollande, whose popularity has plunged amid economic stagnation and extremist violence, hasn’t said whether he will seek re-election.
All French citizens over 18 — whether they are members of the conservative Republicans party or not — can vote in the primary if they pay 2 euros in organization fees and sign a pledge stating they “share the republican values of the right and the center.”
The expected number of voters in Sunday’s election varies from 2 to 4 million people, out of over 44 million citizens registered on electoral rolls. They can vote in 10,228 polling stations open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. across the country.
Results are expected late Sunday.
Copyright 2016 The Associated Press.