By Ingrid Melander
PARIS (Reuters) - Tensions flared between the two contenders in the French conservatives' presidential primary on Tuesday after the one-time favourite attacked the rival who unexpectedly won the first voting round by a wide margin.
The personal attack by Alain Juppe on frontrunner Francois Fillon, both known until now as mild-mannered former prime ministers, heralded a hard-fought final week of campaigning before the primary's runoff voting round on Sunday.
The primary for centre-right candidates could decide who becomes France's next head of state. Pollsters expect the winner to face and beat the far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen in the presidential election next spring.
Juppe, a centrist who topped the opinion polls until shortly before last Sunday's first round, opened the war of words on Monday by branding Fillon's conservative social views and reservations about abortion as "backwards".
He also laced into Fillon's free-market economic policies, which he said reflected "a great social brutality".
Speaking on Tuesday to lawmakers supporting him, Fillon retorted: "After calling me an ultra-liberal, I am now billed as a medieval reactionary. This is grotesque and ridiculous, let's focus on the real issues."
Juppe lagged nearly 16 points behind Fillon in the first round of the primary and faces an uphill battle ahead of the run-off this Sunday. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who came in third, has thrown his support behind Fillon.
Juppe, 71, who has also been foreign and defence minister, presents himself as a more modern centrist, able to win a majority of open-minded conservatives, centrists, undecided voters and even some left-wing voters who take part in the vote.
Anyone can vote in the primaries, which are not restricted to members of the conservative Les Republicains party and a few small allied right-wing and centrist allies.
CATHOLICS AND ABORTION
Born in a traditionally Catholic region of western France, Fillon, 62, is backed by groups that oppose France's same-sex marriage law. He says he wants to tweak that law to limit same-sex couples' adoption rights.
As a Catholic, he is personally opposed to abortion but has said he would not try to change the 1975 law that legalised it.
"Fillon belongs to a traditionalist family. I am more open to modernism," Juppe told France 2 television on Monday, insisting Fillon's statements on abortion were ambiguous and some of his positions on society "backwards".
In a Tuesday radio interview, Juppe again urged Fillon to clarify his stance on abortion.
"I never thought my friend Alain Juppe could sink so low," Fillon told reporters.
Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls told lawmakers on Tuesday that Fillon's program was "reactionary on many societal issues."
At a news conference at his headquarters, legislators in a "Women with Fillon" support group took to the stage to say how "shameful" they considered Juppe's comments to be.
"Panic and bitterness are bad counselors," said Valerie Boyer, campaign spokeswoman for Fillon. "We're shocked that such divisive societal questions are raised within our political family to divide us."
Another lawmaker, Isabelle Le Callennec, echoed Fillon's reservations by declining to say abortion was a fundamental right in France, as pro-choice activists assert. "It's allowed by law," she said. "One should not trivialise abortion."
She added that the Fillon campaign was hearing complaints from some town mayors and Catholic groups against government-sponsored posters about the risks of HIV that show two men embracing and urging gays to practice safe sex.
"It's an electoral message towards the (gay) community," Le Callennec said of the HIV-prevention campaign. "It's a very (suggestive) campaign, and its shocking some, and in particular parents."
(Reporting by Ingrid Melander; Additional reporting by Jean-Baptiste Vey; Editing by Tom Heneghan)