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September 20, 2017

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Can Fillon keep the far-right at bay?

PARIS -- Francois Fillon, having clinched the presidential nomination for the right-wing Republicans party, will now join a far bigger battle for the future of France, the European Union and mainstream politics in the West.

After Donald Trump's stunning victory in the United States, France's election next April and May has become a test for how far a rising tide of nationalist and populist politics will rise.

If polls are to be believed, Fillon's biggest rival is the far-right National Front (FN) leader Marine Le Pen who sees herself as part of a spreading revolt against globalization and the political elite.

Fillon's backers in the Republicans party believe his hard-right positions on protecting French culture, fighting Islamic extremism and combating crime will help to neuter Le Pen's appeal.

"When you enter someone else's house you do not take over," Fillon said in a message to immigrants last week in a sign that he is not scared to adopt the nationalist language of his opponents.

His conservative social views and appeal to rural voters as a devout Catholic from provincial France might also shield him from charges of being an out-of-touch metropolitan liberal.

"It appears your imminent victory is worrying Marine Le Pen," Bruno Le Maire, a rival-turned-supporter in the Republicans party, boomed at Fillon's final campaign rally in Paris last Friday.

Le Maire, a former minister defeated by Fillon in the first round of the Republicans primary, declared Le Pen was right to be scared — to cheers from the mostly white, middle-class crowd.

A Symbol of the Past?

The stakes for France and Europe are high.

As well as pledging a crackdown on immigration, Le Pen has promised to pull her country out of the euro and organize a referendum on France's membership of the European Union.

While Britain's planned departure from the EU club was a major blow, the withdrawal of France, a founding member, could deliver the European project a coup de grace.

The FN under Le Pen has worked hard to try to shed the party's historic racist image and hopes to capitalize on economic gloom and concern about Europe's biggest migrant crisis since World War II.

In the northeastern Parisian suburb of Raincy, a group of FN activists buoyed by Trump's victory and the Brexit vote gathered Sunday morning to hand out leaflets.

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