PARIS — The rivalry is heating up between the two top contenders for France’s conservative presidential primary next month, with the brash Nicolas Sarkozy and the reassuring Alain Juppe dueling over their visions of France’s national identity, immigration and Islam.
Many French voters believe the winner of the November primary will have a good chance to succeed Socialist Francois Hollande — the most unpopular president of France’s modern history.
Juppe and Sarkozy, both experienced, high-profile figures of The Republicans’ party, have adopted two different strategies to attract voters.
Former president Sarkozy, 61, is emphasizing France’s “spiral of decline” and focusing his strategy on attracting voters from the far-right.
Juppe, 71, who served as prime minister during the 1990s, has advocated a “hopeful” vision of the country’s future and tried to expand his base with voters from the center and the right who were disappointed by Sarkozy’s presidency.
“The more voters there will be, the more I am likely (to win),” Juppe said.
Recent polls show Juppe remains the favorite in the race.
Sarkozy, who was president from 2007 to 2012, recently prompted public outrage by saying immigrants granted French citizenship should know “their ancestors are the Gauls.”
“Our ancestors the Gauls” —referring to the peoples who inhabited Europe during the Roman Empire— was an expression used in French schools from the end of the 19th century to the 1960s. The phrase since has come to symbolize colonialism, because children had to learn it even in the country’s colonial empire in Africa.
During a campaign rally Sunday held in a concert hall of northern Paris, Sarkozy advocated making the fight against radical Islam a priority in France.
“Dear compatriots, problems are in front of us, they are not behind us,” he told several thousand supporters. “And I want to defend all those young French Muslim women who don’t want to be abandoned and serve the tyranny of the religious and middle-aged minority.”
Sarkozy also said that if elected, he would organize a referendum on whether to suspend the “family reunification” policy that allows immigrants to bring family members to France.
Juppe, meanwhile, called for a peaceful debate on the place of Islam in France and warned against the rise of nationalism at a youth rally held Saturday in a Paris suburb.
“Commit yourself in the battle against the radicalization of minds everywhere and there you have a decisive role to play, whatever your religion is and even if you don’t have it,” he said. “It is always the ignorance that is causing the fear, and the fear that is causing violence.”
Juppe and Sarkozy will face five other conservative contenders on Thursday for the first televised debate of the primary.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen, designated by her party, the National Front, to be its presidential candidate, is considered a serious contender for the April-May presidential election.
A primary to choose the Socialist candidate will be organized in January. Hollande has not formally said if he will run for re-election.