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September, 28, 2016

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Sarkozy, Juppe seek nomination that could decide French election

PARIS -- France's presidential race started in earnest Wednesday as seven rightwing candidates including ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy were confirmed to contest a November primary, with the nominee seen as the likely winner of next year's election.

The stakes are high with polls showing that the winner of a duel between the two leading candidates from the Republicans party, Sarkozy and former prime minister Alain Juppe, would be the clear favorite to prevail in May.

Following the confirmation of the candidates by election officials, two rounds of voting will be held on Nov. 20 and Nov. 27 to select a rightwing nominee.

National identity and Islam have emerged as key themes in their contest, which has echoes of U.S. Republican nominee Donald Trump's campaign for the White House.

Sarkozy is a brash rightwinger and a divisive figure in French politics, while the experienced Juppe, the current mayor of Bordeaux, has styled himself as a unifying force.

"The candidates all agree on the economy," said Thomas Guenole, a political scientist and author of a book on Sarkozy's comeback, referring to their consensus on cutting taxes and relaxing France's 35-hour working week.

"The only issues on which they create divisions are the four Is: Islam, identity, immigration, insecurity," he said.

Sarkozy, visiting the northern migrant flashpoint of Calais on Wednesday, called for beefed-up controls on all of France's borders so that the country is not "flooded" with migrants.

President Francois Hollande is yet to confirm if he will stand for re-election as the Socialist party's candidate in a run that would defy his historically low approval ratings.

On the far right, the National Front is prepared for battle, with its leader Marine Le Pen widely forecast to successfully negotiate the first round of national voting in April and then lose in the second round against a mainstream candidate.

Juppe the Favorite

Juppe, 71, France's most popular politician, has been the favorite to emerge victorious from the start, but Sarkozy has nearly closed the gap with hardline proposals designed to woo voters reeling from a string of jihadist attacks.

The 61-year-old Sarkozy, who led France from 2007 to 2012, has vowed a "merciless" fight against the Islamist extremists who have killed 238 people nationwide since January 2015.

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A combination of photographs shows candidates for the right-wing Les Republicains (LR) party primaries ahead of the 2017 presidential election, mayor of Bordeaux Alain Juppe, left, pictured on Jan. 20, 2012 in Paris and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy pictured on Nov. 30, 2014 in Boulogne-Billancourt. (AFP)

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