To overcome terrorism, Juppe offered voters 'hope,' while Sarkozy countered with a strict law-and-order platform. He even favored locking up those put on a government watch list.
Former Prime Minister Alain Juppe was seen in an online poll as the winner of Thursday night's Republican primary debate among seven right-wing candidates - including former President Nicolas Sarkozy - for the French presidency. Another prominent participant was Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, the former Minister of Ecology and Sustainable Development, who has also served as a close adviser to and spokesperson for Sarkozy.
Just 27 percent of the debate watchers said Sarkozy won the debate that was seen as very technical, and lacking in a strong vision for France's future. The polling firm Elabe carried out the online survey of 885 voters.
With France having endured a series of terror attacks over the last year, security has become the key issue ahead of the November 20 primary. Unemployment - a problem that has nagged France for decades - remains stubbornly high, making economic revival another priority.
Juppe, running as a centrist with a "happy identity," meant to give voters hope. The former head of government was seen as the debate's winner by 32 percent of those polled.
"I want to lead you on the path of hope," said Juppe, who has also served as mayor of Bordeaux since 2006. "I am convinced that with the right reforms, France will once again be the country where the living is good."
By contrast, Sarkozy, 61,presented himself as a law and order candidate "to ensure France once more becomes the great nation it is." But his hard-right agenda includes preemptively locking-up people he views as especially dangerous, ie, Islamic extremists as a safety measure.
Juppe, 71, called Sarkozy's proposal a "red line" which must not be crossed and insisted a judge must have the final say on such measures.
(L-R) former French Agriculture minister Bruno Le Maire, former prime minister and current Bordeaux mayor Alain Juppe, lawmaker Jean Francois Cope, head of the Christian Democratic Party Jean-Frederic Poisson, and former prime minister Francois Fillon, before the debate
Both men have tarnished pasts. Juppe was given a suspended 14-month jail sentence in 2004, and barred from holding elected office for a year over a party funding scandal in which he was widely seen as the fall guy for his mentor, former President Jacques Chirac.
"Everyone knows about my conviction, we can't rewrite history," Juppe said during the debate. "It is up to the voters to decide if that disqualifies me."
But Sarkozy, too, was on the defensive over the various investigations he has been entangled in since losing his re-election bid in 2012. He left office with the lowest approval ratings of any president in French history - a dubious distinction that has now been eclipsed by his successor Francois Hollande.
Still Sarkozy appeared exasperated having to defend his record.
"After 37 years in politics my criminal record is clean," he said. "Do you think I would take part in this campaign if I had anything on my conscience?"
He went on to lament that he had been hounded by investigators and subjected to "slander" during probes for influence-peddling and suspected illegal funding of his failed re-election bid five years ago.
There will be two more debates before the primary. Broader polls show Juppe leading Sarkozy by 8 - 14 percent, with the five other candidates trailing far behind.
bik/kl (AFP, Reuters, dpa)