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Elections

French conservatives vote in first presidential primary

Polling booths have opened in the first round of the French conservative primary. A tight three-way contest has emerged between former president Nicolas Sarkozy and former prime ministers Francois Fillon and Alain Juppe.

The race for France's conservative presidential nomination got underway on Sunday as seven candidates set their sights on next year's election. By midday, voter turnout had topped one million.

The three leading candidates are former president Nicolas Sarkozy and former prime ministers Francois Fillon and Alain Juppe.

Electoral shake-up

Sunday's primary is the first of its kind to be organized by France's conservatives, making the outcome hard to predict. Candidates were previously designated internally.

The change to the US-style primary has been widely regarded as a response to the rise of the far-right National Front (FN).

Following a campaign which largely revolved around immigration, the final TV debate of the seven candidates on Thursday produced no clear winner, although viewers polled afterwards said Fillon put in the strongest performance.

Results from the first-round of voting are due to be announced late on Sunday, with a runoff between the top two candidates due to be held next week.

Rise of the populist right

Like elsewhere in Europe, Donald Trump's victory in the US election last week has served as a wake-up call in France, upending long-held assumptions and triggering fears, and hopes, that next spring's election will deliver a similar upset.

The chances of France's far-right leader Marine Le Pen running for, and possibly winning, the French presidency in 2017 have also apparently been boosted by Trump's election success. 

The FN leader is now hoping that the growing anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-establishment sentiment can propel her to the presidency.

Former President Sarkozy hopes to pull back votes from the populist right, however, after calling for stricter immigration rules across Europe.

France's seven conservative primary candidates

The final conservative seven: Bruno Le Maire, Alain Juppe, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, Nicolas Sarkozy, Jean-Francois Cope, Jean-Frederic Poisson and Francois Fillon

Left-wing influence

With the French left still divided, the outcome of the conservative primary will be crucial. The conservative nominee who emerges from next Sunday's runoff is tipped to go on to take the presidency in May.

Another unknown factor in Sunday's first round is the number of left-wing voters prepared to pay two euros ($2.10) and sign a declaration that they subscribe to "the values of the centre and the right" to vote in the right-wing primary. Those who do are expected to vote against Sarkozy.

President Francois Hollande's is also yet to announce whether he intends to bid for re-election. On Wednesday, Hollande's former economy minister Emmanuel Macron said he would stand as an independent.

ksb/jlw (AFP, AP)

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