Sun Nov 20, 2016 9:39AM
(L-to-R) Jean-Francois Cope, Nicolas Sarkozy, Alain Juppe, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, Jean-Frederic Poisson, Francois Fillon and Bruno Le Maire, all vying to win Republican nomination for presidential elections,  in a televised debate in Paris, November 17, 2016. (Photo by AFP)
(L-to-R) Jean-Francois Cope, Nicolas Sarkozy, Alain Juppe, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, Jean-Frederic Poisson, Francois Fillon and Bruno Le Maire, all vying to win Republican nomination for presidential elections, in a televised debate in Paris, November 17, 2016. (Photo by AFP)

France’s center-right Republican Party has kicked off its nominating contest to determine the party’s presidential candidate in next year’s election.

Seven candidates are competing on Sunday to represent the Republican Party.

The candidates include Jean-Francois Cope, 52, ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, 61, ex-prime minister Alain Juppe, 71, ex-prime minister Francois Fillon, 62, Bruno Le Maire, 47, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, 43, and Jean-Frederic Poisson, 53, with the forerunners being Sarkozy, Juppe and Fillon.

The three leading candidates have similar programs, underpinned by pledges to reinforce security, reduce immigration and cut taxes; however, they differ in style.

Sarkozy displays a tougher attitude, arguing that such a stance makes him a better choice than the mild-mannered Juppe to handle Donald Trump, the unpredictable US president-elect.

Fillon, who is popular in the business world, has promised “radical” economic measures but is the most conservative of the three on social issues.

A final televised debate of the seven candidates on Thursday produced no clear winner, although viewers polled afterwards said Fillon put in the strongest performance.

“We were expecting a duel but in the end a three-way contest has emerged,” political scientist Jerome Jaffre wrote in Le Figaro newspaper on Thursday.

A voter survey on Friday gave Fillon 30 percent popularity while both Sarkozy and Juppe each separately wielded 29 percent support.

With the French left remaining divided until now, the next French president will possibly either be the Republican nominee or the far-right leader Marine Le Pen.