French rightwing frontrunner Fillon faces instant barrage

French rightwing frontrunner Fillon faces instant barrage

Paris (AFP) - The surprise winner of the first round of France's rightwing presidential primary immediately came under attack Monday, with Francois Fillon's rivals slamming his radical reform agenda as "ultra-conservative" and "unworkable".

Former prime minister Fillon, an admirer of Margaret Thatcher, pulled off a stunning upset Sunday, coming from behind to knock his former boss Nicolas Sarkozy out of the race and beating the favourite, Alain Juppe, into distant second.

Fillon will go head-to-head with fellow former premier Juppe in a run-off Sunday that is widely expected to decide France's next leader after a prospective duel next year with far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

An Opinionway poll showed Fillon winning the primary by 56 percent to Juppe's 44 percent.

His rivals on Monday sought to halt his march with Juppe on Monday saying Fillon had an "extremely traditionalist and even retrograde vision on the role of women, the family and on marriage."

Former centre-right prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, a close Juppe ally, slammed his plans to cut half a million civil service jobs and force public servants to work longer hours.

"There is no chance of implementing reforms through brute force," Raffarin told BFM television, calling them "unworkable".

- 'Time to turn the tide' -

An advisor to President Francois Hollande described 62-year-old Fillon as a "red rag to left-wing voters".

At the other end of the spectrum, the vice-president of Le Pen's National Front (FN), Florian Philippot, said Fillon's economic proposals were "the most extreme" of all candidates.

But Fillon appeared unfazed on Monday saying: "I believe the French people have chosen ... and given me a large margin."

"I therefore do not fear a setback," he told TF1 television. Fillon also accused Juppe of misrepresenting his programme to "recover lost ground."

With the Socialists in disarray under the spectacularly unpopular Hollande, the second round of the presidential election in May is shaping up as a showdown between the winner of the rightwing primary and Le Pen.

Polls show both Juppe and Fillon would easily defeat the far-right leader but her rivals have warned that all bets are off in a country where the anti-elite sentiment that propelled Donald Trump to the White House is running high.

- 'Mr Nobody' -

Sarkozy's defeat at the hands of his former premier Fillon, a man he once nicknamed "Mr Nobody", brought the curtain down on the ex-president's attempt to revive his 40-year career.

His hard-right campaign and failure to enact many of his promises when in power from 2007-2012 spurred millions of voters to the polls to block his comeback.

Around 15 percent of the four million voters who took part in the open-to-all primary were leftist supporters, an Elabe poll showed. Many are thought to have voted against Sarkozy.

Fillon, a car-racing enthusiast, emerged as a compromise choice between Sarkozy and Juppe, a moderate nine years his senior whose reform agenda is seen by many conservatives as too timid.

Results from over 95 percent of polling stations on Monday gave Fillon 44.1 percent of the votes cast, ahead of 28.5 percent for Juppe and 20.6 percent for Sarkozy. Four other candidates each scored under five percent.

- Burkini ban -

Voters appear to have been won over by Fillon's assured performances in three pre-vote television debates.

On Sunday night he declared his programme was one of "hope" and "strong change".

His pledges to shed 500,000 civil service jobs and increase the working week from 35 to 39 hours for both public and private sector workers went further than any other candidate, including Sarkozy.

On social issues, the devout Catholic and father of five from Le Mans, a town 200 kilometres (125 miles) south of Paris famous for its 24-hour car rally, is also more conservative than many of his rivals.

He opposes gay adoption and supports a ban on the full-body Islamic "burkini" swimsuit.

Fillon has also called for closer ties with Russia and voiced support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

- Poll fail -

Fillon had emphasised the fact he was only one of the frontrunners with no skeletons in his closet.

"Who can imagine General de Gaulle being charged with a crime?" he said on the campaign trail, citing the French war hero to take a swipe at Sarkozy and Juppe who have both had legal problems.

The nomination of the rightwing candidate on November 27 is expected to trigger an announcement from Hollande on whether he intends to bid for re-election despite having the lowest popularity ratings of any post-war president.

Last week, he suffered a further setback when his star former economy minister Emmanuel Macron announced he would run as an independent.