‘France isn’t multicultural’: Flash poll finds Francois Fillon wins primary debate with Alain Juppé

French politicians Alain Juppe (R) and Francois Fillon shake hands as they arrive to attend the third prime-time televised debate as they campaign in the second round for the French center-right presidential primary election in Paris, France, November 24, 2016 © Eric Feferberg
Former French premier Francois Fillon is seen as the winner of a two-hour TV debate with his rival Alain Juppé, according to an online flash poll conducted afterwards. The two are vying for the presidential nomination of France’s The Republicans party.

During the two-hour debate, 62-year-old Fillon said that he felt like he had won the “ideological battle,” asserting that France has never been more rightwing than now and his candidacy was, therefore, the perfect choice. He also said that his rival, Alain Juppé, “doesn’t really want to change things.”

“He’s staying within the system, he just wants to improve it. My project is more radical,” Fillon said, as cited by Reuters.

The candidates were at odds over the identity of France, with Fillon emphasizing that “France isn’t a multicultural nation. When you come to someone’s house, by courtesy, you don’t take over.”

Juppé said that it is rich diversity that makes France special, and that the nation should celebrate it.

The two also discussed relations with Russia: “It’s the first time that a Russian leader has chosen his candidate,” Juppé said, provocatively referring to the fact that President Putin had praised Fillon as “decent and a real professional” two days earlier.

“Vladimir Putin has had his compliments for Alain Juppé as well,” retorted Fillon, who has repeatedly spoken out in favor of restoring relations with Russia and backing out of sanctions.

“It just so happened that I was a premier for five years – and so was Vladimir Putin. These are the only relations we have,” Fillon went on to say.

However, a rapprochement with Russia wouldn’t mean that France would have to turn away from its partners, he insisted.

“France’s interest is not in changing alliances, turning to Russia instead of the US,” Fillon said, while branding the views attributed to him as a “caricature.”

When the two got to the burning issue of abortions, Fillon said he was personally opposed to the practice, but would change nothing in the existing 1875 law. Juppé, in turn, said he believed that abortion was a fundamental right.

As for the labor market, Fillon pledged to cut some 500,000 public sector jobs, and get France back to full employment in five years.

The country’s unemployment rate currently stands at 10 percent (for the third quarter of 2016), according to INSEE figures, after 9.9 percent in June – the first fall below the 10-percent mark since 2012 and one of the highest figures in the EU.

Fillon also stressed that current social programs – pensions, unemployment benefits and health services – don’t work and have to be changed.

However, Juppé said such reforms would have a brutal impact on the population, insisting that they wouldn’t work.

“The French social model exists, I want to consolidate it. We should not break it… Reform shouldn’t mean punishment, but hope,” he said.

The online vote carried out by Elabe company following the debate showed that 71 percent out of the 908 people polled found Fillon more convincing.

The TV debate came after a few days of verbal attacks from both candidates in which Fillon was dubbed “a medieval reactionary” for his views on gay marriage, while Juppé was branded "Ali Juppé" for backing French diversity.

Before last week, Fillon was largely viewed as an underdog in the race. However, opinions have shifted since he won his center-right party’s first primary round with 44 percent of the vote, eliminating former President Nicolas Sarkozy, and he is now regarded as the favorite to win the French presidency.

At the same time, his views on mending ties with Russia have led to hysteria in the media, with many outlets dubbing Fillon “Putin’s friend.”