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In France 7 centre-right presidential hopefuls

The 62-year-old is best remembered for having warned before the eurozone debt crisis that France was living beyond its means.

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(AFP)

Seven right-wing presidential hopefuls were competing Sunday in the first round of a US-style primary that is widely expected to decide France's next leader.

The winner of the two-round November 20-27 contest is forecast by opinion polls to meet -- and beat -- far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen in the second round of the presidential election in May.

The right-wing race is seen as a three-way affair between Alain Juppe, Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Fillon, with the four other candidates all likely to poll under 10 percent.

Alain Juppe, unifier

Former prime minister Juppe, 71, has campaigned as a moderate and a sage who will unify a country divided by a deep economic malaise and a wave of jihadist attacks.

The man with the longest CV in French politics, including stints as foreign and defence minister under Sarkozy, has attempted to banish the gloom with his vision of a "happy" national identity.

In 1995, the then premier's attempts to push through reforms sparked huge protests that paralysed France. Juppe says he is a "changed" man and now more open to dialogue.

He spent several years in the political wilderness after a party funding scandal in 2004, in which he was seen as the fall guy for his mentor Jacques Chirac.

Sarkozy has accused him of being "soft" but Juppe insists he "stands his ground".

Nicolas Sarkozy, comeback kid

Former president Sarkozy, 61, promised to blow the competition out of the water as he bids to win back the keys to the Elysee Palace but has so far failed to land a knockout blow on arch-rival Juppe.

In a strategy that cost him re-election in 2012 he has again lurched to the right on immigration, security and Islam in a bid to woo voters tempted by the National Front.

The son of a Hungarian immigrant, Sarkozy was elected in 2007 on a promise of reforms.

But his taste for the high life -- he is married to former top model Carla Bruni -- and failure to enact many of his promises led voters to cast him out after a single term.

After telling the French they would never hear from him if vanquished, he returned to lead the Republicans party in 2014 as the champion of the "silent majority".

"How many Brexits, how many American elections, how many lost European referendums do you need to finally hear the anger of the people?" he told a rally.

Francois Fillon, the third man

Fillon is hoping to cause an upset by winning a place in the November 27 run-off as a compromise choice with more bite than Juppe but less punch than his former boss Sarkozy.

In 1981, Fillon became the youngest member of the French parliament at age 27 and held several ministerial portfolios under Chirac.

As Sarkozy's prime minister from 2007 to 2012 his unflappable, avuncular style made him an antidote to the hyperactive president.

The 62-year-old is best remembered for having warned before the eurozone debt crisis that France was living beyond its means.

A car-racing fanatic, he has come from behind in the last weeks of the campaign on a pledge to cut half a million civil servant jobs, increase the working week from 35 to 39 hours and reduce immigration to the "strict minimum".

Bruno Le Maire, the good pupil

Agriculture minister under Sarkozy from 2009 to 2012, Le Maire has struggled to shake off an image of slightly stodgy, over-educated technocrat.

"My intelligence is an obstacle," the 47-year-old clean-cut politician once famously declared.

His programme comes in the form of a 1,012-page "contract" with the French.

Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, free spirit

At 43, former environment minister Kosciusko-Morizet is the youngest candidate, and the only woman.

A maverick who has called for cannabis to be decriminalised, she was sacked by Sarkozy as the Republicans' vice president in December 2015 after she criticised his leadership.

Known in France by her initials NKM, she made an unsuccessful bid to become Paris mayor in 2014.

Jean-Francois Cope, 'uninhibited' right

Cope, 52, was forced to resign as president of the UMP, the forerunner of the Republicans Party, in June 2014 over a campaign finance scandal that has also embroiled Sarkozy.

A former budget minister and advocate of an "uninhibited right" he was led red-faced recently after revealing he had no idea of the price of a pain au chocolat, a French breakfast staple.

"I think it must be around 10 or 15 centimes," he said of the pastry that sells for around 10 times that.

Jean-Frederic Poisson, Christian choice

The head of the Christian Democratic Party, 53-year-old Poisson has taken a firm stance against gay marriage, legalised in France in 2013.

He courted controversy during the campaign for refusing to rule out voting for Le Pen in the unlikely event she meets current Socialist president Francois Hollande in the election run-off in May.

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