French conservatives are choosing their nominee for next year’s vital presidential election from among two former prime ministers with deep experience in government and differing views on how to prevent more terror attacks.
The contenders in the conservative bloc’s primary run-off – Francois Fillon, 62, and 71-year-old Alain Juppe – are both high-profile leaders of the centre-right Republicans party. Mr Fillon, who wants to focus on fighting Islamic extremism, is judged by many to be the frontrunner.
The winner of the run-off ultimately could end up facing far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who is banking on anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-establishment sentiments to sweep her to power in the general election set for April, with a run-off the following month if neither side wins a majority.
The incumbent, Socialist President Francois Hollande, is expected to announce in the coming weeks whether he will seek re-election. The position of the French left has been weakened by his extreme unpopularity.
Mr Fillon has enjoyed a strong boost in popularity in recent weeks. He promotes traditional family values and said he plans to reduce immigration to France “to a minimum”.
Mr Juppe is advocating a more peaceful vision of French society, based on respect for religious freedom and ethnic diversity.
The two also have strongly different views on how to deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin, with Mr Fillon in favour of forging closer ties.
He wants to drop sanctions against Russia over its aggressive actions in Ukraine and join Moscow in the fight against Islamic State extremists.
Mr Fillon insists “Russia poses no threat” to the West, while Mr Juppe wants France to continue putting pressure on Mr Putin on various fronts.
They both pledge to cut public spending, reduce the number of civil servants, raise the retirement age from 62 to 65, extend the work week beyond 35 hours and cut business taxes.
Mr Fillon was the prime minister from 2007 to 2012 under President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was eliminated in the primary’s first round a week ago and now is backing him. Mr Juppe was prime minister from 1995 to 1997 under President Jacques Chirac.
In the first round of primary voting on November 20, Mr Fillon won 44.1% of the votes, Mr Juppe 28.6% and Mr Sarkozy 20.7%. A second round is needed because no candidate secured a majority.
All French citizens over 18 – whether they are members of the Republicans party or not – can vote in the primary if they pay 2 euro (£1.70) in fees and sign a pledge stating they “share the republican values of the right and the centre”.
They can vote in 10,228 polling stations open from 8am to 7pm local time across the country.
More than 4.2 million people voted in the first round, which organisers considered as a significant turnout.
Results are expected on Sunday night.