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Fillon Beats Juppe In French Conservative Presidential Primary

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Francois Fillon has won the French mainstream conservative party's presidential primary. He's now going to face off against a candidate from the left and another from the far right next May in France's presidential election. Fillon was a distant third in polls but won big with two-thirds of the vote. So what happened here? Well, let's ask NPR's Eleanor Beardsley, who's on the line from Paris. Hi, Eleanor.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Who is Francois Fillon?

BEARDSLEY: Well, first of all, let me say polls got it wrong again here. Francois Fillon came in with two-thirds of the vote - 66 percent. He was Sarkozy's prime minister for five years.

INSKEEP: Oh, Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president.

BEARDSLEY: Yeah, the former president who also wanted to run again, but he was knocked out. Sarkozy didn't treat him very well. He didn't treat him like the prime minister of France. He treated him sort of like his personal assistant or handy man. Anyways, Fillon, he was dignified. He served his five years, and then since Sarkozy lost to Francois Hollande, he's been plugging away trying to come back. He's a practicing Catholic. He has five kids. His wife is British, and he's quite conservative actually. And he beat the mayor of Bordeaux, Alain Juppe, who only got 33 percent of the vote.

The two men had similar platforms, but Fillon's is a lot harder. He is very conservative. He says he wants to cut 500,000 public sector jobs, bring the retirement age up to 65 and lengthen the 35-hour work week. And he's socially conservative, Steve. He was against the gay marriage law that Francois Hollande - president - passed. And he wants to work with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Juppe had a much more multicultural strength in our diversity approach, but that approach lost. This was a clear vote, Steve. It's not ambiguous. The French have chosen a conservative candidate for president.

INSKEEP: Well, let's figure this out here because there was a big question about who was going to be running and what their positions would be. During the actual presidential decision, you have Francois Hollande on the left, who's considered very unpopular. You have a nationalist movement on the right, led by Marine Le Pen, and people close to Donald Trump have reached out to her party, which gives you an idea of where they stand. Have French conservatives found a powerful alternative to these two possibilities?

BEARDSLEY: Well, yes. Actually, the thinking now is that Francois Fillon is likely to be the next French president because of what you said. Francois Hollande, the president, is extremely unpopular. In fact, Steve, he hasn't even announced whether he's running again yet, and the election is next April. He keeps waiting for a better time to announce it, but it keeps getting worse, so we're currently waiting on that.

And then the presidential vote is in two rounds. And the far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, will be running. And the thinking is that she will make it into the second round because she's very popular with working-class voters and that she'll face off against Fillon who, analysts say, will beat her.

INSKEEP: Now, I just want to ask, Eleanor, you said that it seems likely that Fillon will be France's next president. If we rewound six or eight months, we would find analysts who say it's likely that Brexit would be defeated in Britain and that Hillary Clinton would be the next president of the United States. Any chance that Le Pen could win this one in France?

BEARDSLEY: Well, that's the fear, and that's why everyone has been watching this, you know, mainstream conservative primary because whoever wins here is going to be going up against Le Pen. Now, it's interesting because analysts are saying that Le Pen actually wanted to face off either against Sarkozy, who was unpopular, or Juppe, who was multicultural. And instead, she has Fillon, who's conservative like she is. So - but this morning, I think we heard what her line of attack is going to be. The far-right National Front Party came out and said, this is the candidate for savage globalization. So they're going to paint him as someone who's going to take away government supports of the French working class and families and destroy French jobs with totally open markets and open borders and all that.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, Eleanor, thanks very much.

BEARDSLEY: Good to be with you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris where Francois Fillon has won the French mainstream conservative party's presidential primary, setting up a battle early next year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.