BORDEAUX, France (Reuters) - At a rally on Alain Juppe’s home ground in Bordeaux last week, a group of supporters tried to get the crowd clapping and chanting before the conservative presidential hopeful took to the stage. They failed.
And during the meeting, there was nothing to match the electric atmosphere at rallies for former president Nicolas Sarkozy, Juppe’s rival to be the French conservatives’ candidate in next year’s presidential election.
The scene in the town where Juppe has been mayor for most of the past 20 years showed the challenge he faces ahead of Sunday’s voting for the Republican party nomination: Can he fire up enough voters to back him?
The former prime minister, 71, has been ahead in opinion polls for months, seen as a safe bet in a primary election whose winner has a good chance of becoming president next year.
But the race is tightening in its final days, with one poll showing Juppe losing to another former prime minister, Francois Fillon, who has unexpectedly gained momentum.
Even if Juppe does win the primaries, his path to the Elysee Palace is complicated by Wednesday’s announcement by Socialist President Francois Hollande’s former economy minister Emmanuel Macron that he will run for president. Macron, 38, is popular among centrists and could take votes from Juppe in the presidential election.
Polls show the bigger the turnout the better are Juppe’s chances in the primaries. Party managers are working furiously to get the vote out.
“What matters is not how loud the crowd is but who turns up to vote,” said Gilles Boyer, Juppe’s campaign director.
“It’s time to engage everyone!” Juppe told supporters in Paris.
But Donald Trump’s surprise U.S. election win against Hillary Clinton, a candidate in many ways similar to Juppe, has given hope to the French politician’s opponents, amid fears that polling is failing to give the full picture.
Anybody can take part in the conservative primaries, making it hard to identify who will vote and who will win.
“That was the case in the United States and is also a problem for pollsters for the primaries,” said Sciences Po Bordeaux university professor Jean Petaux. “We must take opinion polls with a big pinch of salt.”
What could help Juppe is the fact that many voters don’t much like the alternatives.
“He’s a good mayor and I like what he did in Bordeaux,” said local resident Maryline Coudouin. “But I have a bit of an issue with his age.” She was however likely to back Juppe “for lack of any other option”.
In an effort to shed his austere image, Juppe has allowed himself to be photographed dancing with pensioners at a retirement home and has gone on television to confess to numerous affairs between his two marriages.
In an autobiography published in September he recalled a childhood dream of growing up to be the pope.
Under Juppe, a refurbished Bordeaux has attracted tourists and new residents. Old buildings have been cleaned up, a tram network built and the Garonne river quays opened to the public.
He has worked with local left-wing mayors and promoted inter-faith dialogue, which differentiated him from Sarkozy, who has mocked Juppe’s political alliances and taken a hard line on Islam.
The two candidates’ economic policies are largely similar — cutting public spending and scrapping a tax on the wealthy. But aides say that, unlike Sarkozy, Juppe can unite people across party lines.
“He is shy and not much of an extrovert and doesn’t much like to talk about himself,” Virginie Calmels, Juppe’s deputy in Bordeaux, said in an interview. “But he is a statesman, he is pragmatic and he brings people together.”
Juppe’s long political history has come under scrutiny in this latest campaign. He has been seen as cold and rigid, especially since his time as prime minister in 1995-1997, when he faced weeks of strikes over pension reform.
But he seemed to soften when he returned from a period in Quebec, where he went after being given a suspended jail sentence in 2004 when his party was found to be illegally using Paris city hall staff while he was party leader. Supporters say such practices were widespread at the time.
“What I can say of him is that he is someone who listens to others,” said entrepreneur Christophe Chartier, who knows Juppe from his meetings with business leaders.
While Sarkozy accuses him of being too soft, friends and foes in Bordeaux agree that Juppe does not bow to pressure.
Calmels said his refusal to give in to a garbage collectors’ strike, even though it was during the Euro 2016 soccer tournament, shows he would be able to implement unpopular reforms.
“At his age, and with his commitment to serve only one term, I don’t see what could make him flexible,” said Matthieu Rouveyre, a Socialist municipal councilor and critic of Juppe. “He is not soft, he is pushy and will impose his ideas no matter what, whether good or bad.”
Additional reporting by Marina Depetris; editing by Giles Elgood