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French presidential primary selects a candidate to face rising far-right

François Fillon is expected to win the nomination of the Republican party to face off against far-right leader Marine Le Pen's National Front in April.

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    A man gestures before voting during the second round of the French conservatives nationwide primary election in Lyon, central France, on Sunday. French conservatives are choosing their nominee for next year's vital presidential election from among two former prime ministers, Francois Fillon and Alain Juppé, both with deep experience in government and differing views on how to prevent more terror attacks on French soil.
    Laurent Cipriani/AP
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Members of France's Republican party are heading to the polls today to choose their candidate for president of the country.

The two candidates, François Fillon and Alain Juppé, are both high-profile members of the center-right party. With the current unpopularity of incumbent Socialist president François Hollande, the winner of today's race might ordinarily expect to handily win the presidency as well. But victory might not be so easy for the center-right.

Most predictors say that the presidential race in France will come down to a contest between the center-right candidate and far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen. While opinion polls have her losing to the likely Republican nominee, the recent surprise victories of Donald Trump and Brexit have shaken faith in polls in regard to right-wing populist upsets.

Currently, polls are predicting a strong victory in the Republican primary for Mr. Fillon, who is known for being both a fiscal and traditional "family values" conservative. He has pledged to keep immigration "to a minimum" in France, and opposes same-sex marriage. He also supports the normalization of relations between Russia and the West.

While Mr. Juppé agrees with Fillon on cutting public spending, business taxes, and government workers, these similarities will likely not be enough to persuade the center-right party to elect him in light of his more multiculturalist views, compared to those of his opponent.

Juppé's more moderate policies have hurt him during this election cycle, especially in light of the recent terror attacks in France that have fueled the rise of the far-right in the country. A poll on Friday had him losing the nomination with 39 percent support compared to Fillon's 61 percent. But while Fillon has a more supportive stance for many of the policies that right-wing populists espouse in France, that might not be able to help him win the support of enough far-right voters to win the presidency when going up against the real thing. 

With the Socialists in disarray, the party of Mr. Hollande is not expected to be able to mount a realistic comeback against the candidates of the Republicans and the National Front, meaning that the contest will likely come down to Fillon and Le Pen. Fillon is currently polling ahead of Le Pen, with many in France opposed to the idea of a far-right candidate taking power. But the rise of right-wing populism over the last year has been consistently and repeatedly underestimated worldwide in multiple political contests. 

A victory for the National Front could have a significant impact on the rest of the Western world. Le Pen's party supports leaving the European Union and seeks to overturn other parts of the international political establishment. With so many far-right parties on the rise, and the recent victory of Donald Trump in the United States, the results of the French election could have monumental repercussions echoed by similar victories across Europe.

The first round of voting on Sunday is open to any French citizen over 18, whether he or she is a member of the Republican party or not. Those who wish to vote in the primary must sign a pledge saying they "share the republican values of the right and the center," and pay a fee of two Euros.

This article contains material from the Associated Press.

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