Conservative presidential frontrunner Francois Fillon drew cheers for his uncompromising views on Islam and French identity at a final rally in Paris ahead of a primary vote this weekend to choose the Republicans party candidate.
Fillon's surge has taken commentators and pollsters by surprise and he will go head-to-head with his centrist rival Alain Juppe in tomorrow's vote when millions will pick the party's candidate for next year's presidential election.
Speaking in front of a flag-waving crowd of thousands yesterday, Fillon drew applause for his plans for radical economic reform and cheers when he strayed onto questions of French identity and Islam.
Having dismissed multiculturalism and called for patriotism to heal France's divisions, he demanded that "the Islamic religion accept what all the others have accepted in the past... That radicalism and provocation have no place here."
Juppe has sought to portray 62-year-old Fillon, also an ex-prime minister, as having a "brutal" economic programme as well as positions on identity and religion that appeal to people on the far-right.
"I'm confident of victory on Sunday," the more moderate Juppe told a crowd in Nancy despite polls forecasting a comfortable win for his opponent.
Both men are positioning themselves against their expected rivals in next year's election, notably the resurgent far-right leader Marine Le Pen, as well as a Socialist party candidate and independents.
Juppe has made a clear pitch for the centre ground, promising a "happy identity" for demoralised France and stressing that the country's strength must come from its diversity.
"I think I am best placed with my programme to beat Marine Le Pen," Juppe said yesterday, referring to the nationalist and anti-immigration boss of the National Front.
Fillon has accused Juppe of lacking reformist zeal and he invoked past French legends from Charles de Gaulle to Joan of Arc yesterday.
"Was it caution that we admire in these people?" Fillon asked the crowd.
Fillon scored a surprise victory in the first round of the Republicans primary last weekend, winning 44 percent of the vote, and he gave an assured performance in a final televised debate with Juppe on Thursday night.
Fifty-seven percent of viewers judged Fillon to have been the most convincing, according to an independent poll for the BFMTV television channel of 908 people who followed the nearly two-hour exchange.
The devout Catholic wants to slash 500,000 public sector jobs over five years and scrap the 35-hour working week in a bid to kick-start the sluggish economy.
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