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France

Fillon declares victory in French presidential primary as Juppe concedes defeat

Francois Fillon has won France's first-ever conservative primary ahead of next year's presidential election, declaring victory over moderate Alain Juppe. Fillon will likely face off against the far-right's Marine Le Pen.

After taking a strong lead in initial results on Sunday, Francois Fillon has declared victory in the second round of the runoff primary to choose the candidate to represent the conservative Les Republicains (The Republicans) party in France's presidential election next spring.

Fillon won over 67 percent of the vote in a landslide victory, exit polls showed.

His rival, Alain Juppe, conceded defeat and congratulated Fillon for his "wide victory" as results continued to roll in. Juppe also said he would support Fillon in the presidential election.

"I finish this campaign as I began it: A free man who would not compromise, neither what he is nor what he thinks," Juppe said.

Speaking from his campaign headquarters, Fillon called for unity and action to defeat France's far-right and its discredited left.

"I must now convince the whole country our project is the only one that can lift us up," Fillon said.

With France's Socialists, led by President Francois Hollande, facing record low popularity figures, the conservative candidate is expected to face far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen in the second round of the presidential election, slated to take place in two rounds during April and May.

High turnout

The runoff vote saw a turnout that was 4.5 percent higher than last week's first round, in which 4.3 million conservative party supporters cast their ballots. Any registered voter was able to take part in the primary.

Fillon, a social conservative and Catholic, won the first primary round by an easy margin, taking 44 percent of the vote to Juppe's 28.6 percent. He served as former French President Nicholas Sarkozy's prime minister from 2007 to 2012 and was also the clear favorite in opinion polls ahead of Sunday's vote.

Fillon campaigned on promises of free-market reforms, support for traditional family values, friendlier relations with Russia and a hard line on immigration and Islam.

Juppe, also a former prime minister, represented more moderate positions on social issues than Fillon, though he shared his opponent's views on cutting public spending and easing economic regulations, if in a more measured fashion.

Far-right resurgence

Next year's election in France will take place against a backdrop of widespread disaffection with the "establishment" in Western countries, a sentiment that has so far produced Britain's vote to leave the European Union and the victory of real estate magnate Donald Trump in the US presidential election.

Marine Le Pen (Reuters/H.-P. Bader)

Le Pen has set her sights on the Elysee Palace

Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is also forecast to lose a referendum on constitutional reform on December 4, while Germany's Angela Merkel might well face a hard fight for re-election next year amid a resurgence of far-right political platforms, notably the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

This anti-establishment sentiment is likely to benefit the anti-immigration National Front in France, which is also hoping to profit from a rise in support for its nationalist message as Europe is buffeted by challenges posed by Islamist terrorism and an influx of migrants from the Middle East and Africa.

The Socialist primaries are due to take place in January. President Hollande has two weeks to decide whether he will stand as a candidate, while Prime Minister Manuel Valls is also considering entering the presidential fray.

rs, tj/cmk (dpa, Reuters)

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