PARIS – Sunday's primary runoff to select a conservative candidate for the French presidential election pits a champion of free-market economics and traditional family values against a moderate who accuses his rival of pandering to the far right.
Francois Fillon, 62, is counting on his leading tally of votes from the first round, more than 44 percent, and the support of former President Nicolas Sarkozy to become the Republicans' nominee. He must defeat Alain Juppe, 71, who last weekend came second in a seven-strong field with 29 percent support.
The two former prime ministers — Fillon served under Sarkozy from 2007 to 2012, Juppe under Jacques Chirac from 1995 to 1997 — clashed in their final televised debate Thursday night.
Fillon argued that France needs to "break" from existing policies while Juppe said reforms should come with "no brutality."
"It's true that my project is more radical, more difficult," said Fillon, who was rated the winner in post-broadcast polls.
Fillon's supporters describe him as a straightforward, trustworthy and experienced leader who can boost the economy in France, where unemployment currently stands at 10 percent. They cite his record as prime minister, when his plans in 2010 and 2011 cut public spending and raised taxes to cope with Europe's fiscal crisis.
Fillon this time pledges, if elected president, to prune 110 billion euros ($116 billion) in spending over the coming five years, partly by laying off 500,000 public servants, some 9 percent of the total.
Thousands of flag-waving supporters cheered Fillon at a Tuesday night rally in the southeast city of Lyon. "We will win!" they sang.
One supporter, 66-year-old Michel Dannoux, said a Fillon victory would allow France to "escape from the current economic stagnation. He himself says it's hard but it's probably the most efficient solution to deal with unemployment."
"If we want to save the situation, we need to tighten our belts," said another, Jean-Claude Molina, 63.
Fillon also wants to permit businesses to employ workers for up to 48 hours a week, abolishing the current 35-hour standard.
Juppe dismisses Fillon's more radical proposals as unrealistic.
He told a rally Tuesday in the southwest city of Toulouse that Fillon's plan to cull the public payroll would mean that until 2022 "not one nurse, teacher or policeman will be hired. This makes no sense!"
Juppe's period as prime minister featured general strikes against his proposed welfare reforms that paralyzed the country for weeks, forcing him to abandon those plans.
The two have repeatedly clashed over who stands the better chance of defeating the Republicans' two most likely challengers for president: Marine Le Pen, leader of the far right National Front and the candidate from the governing Socialist Party. The deeply unpopular Socialist incumbent, President Francois Hollande, is expected to decide next month whether to seek re-election or stand aside for a party colleague, most likely Prime Minister Manuel Valls.
Juppe accuses Fillon of seeking support from Le Pen's extremist followers, a charge Fillon strongly rejects.
Fillon's supporters say he makes a much stronger family values candidate. He is a practicing Catholic with a 36-year marriage to a British wife and five children. He has pledged to retain France's legalization of gay marriage but seeks to restrict the right of same-sex couples to adopt.
He has been accused of sexism. Conservative lawmaker Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, who supports Juppe, recalled this week how Fillon once told her that she couldn't be a government minister because she was pregnant. He later apologized.
Fillon describes himself as a patriot who wants to restore France's sovereignty.
"Whoever the chief of the White House is, it's time for France and for the Europeans to understand that being the United States' friend does not mean being its vassals," he told the Lyon rally to applause.
While Fillon says he seeks to reduce immigration "to a minimum," Juppe says France must remain welcoming to newcomers.
"France's identity is its diversity," Juppe said during Thursday's TV debate.
"Because we are not all the same. We have different origins, different skin colors, different religions — and some people don't have any," he said, calling France's social mix "a source of wealth, a strength."
Juppe is counting Sunday on support from centrist and leftist voters to help him overtake Fillon. All French citizens aged 18 or older can vote in primaries, regardless of party membership.
Fillon emphasized in the debate that his agenda deserved support because it was bolder.
"If we're not radical now, when will we be?" he said. "If we're not taking risks now, when will we take them?"