PARIS (AP) — Perhaps the biggest difference between the two men competing in France's conservative presidential primary is how they view Vladimir Putin's Russia. And whatever French voters decide in Sunday's primary runoff, it's pretty clear what Putin's preference would be.
Francois Fillon, who polls suggest is the front-runner, wants to end sanctions against Russia over its actions in Ukraine, work alongside Russia against the Islamic State group, and insists "Russia poses no threat to the West."
His rival, Alain Juppe, is sticking close to France's current line: keeping up pressure on Putin to make peace with Ukraine and to stop bombing Syrian opposition groups on behalf of President Bashar Assad.
If Fillon wins the nomination, that would put him in a powerful position heading into the April-May election — and his strongest challenger might turn out to be far-right leader Marine Le Pen, an open fan of Putin.
Like U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, who cozied up to Putin during his campaign, some conservative French politicians are increasingly talking about partnering with Putin's Russia instead of isolating it. Russia — and notably its role in Syria — is emerging as a key foreign policy issue in the French campaign.
"Western countries have made a 'virtual enemy' of Russia in recent years, rejecting cooperation with Moscow even though Russia poses no threat to the West," Fillon said on Europe-1 radio this week.
Fillon said this attitude pushes the country away toward Asia, which "is absurd."
"I'm just asking that we sit around the table with the Russians —without, by the way, asking for the Americans' approval — and with them we try to re-establish ties," he said in a televised debate with Juppe on Thursday night.
Sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine crisis "did not change a thing except ruin the French farmers," he added.
Fillon and Putin signed multiple trade deals when they were both prime ministers — Fillon from 2007-2012 under Nicolas Sarkozy, Putin from 2008-2012 while Dmitry Medvedev assumed the presidency.
Putin, speaking to reporters in Moscow on Wednesday, said of Fillon: "Despite his very European manner ... he is capable of defending his point of view. ... He is a high-class professional."
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday the two men have a "good relationship," and added, "We follow the French campaign with a great interest."
The Russian praise didn't go unnoticed in France. Juppe bristled at what he suggested was Russian meddling in the conservatives' campaign.
"It's the first time in a French election the Russian head of State chooses his candidates. I'm a little bit surprised," Juppe said.
While Juppe called for a good relationship with Russia, he also insisted: "To talk with Russia does not mean always say: yes, yes. It means to tell them the truth. The truth I want to tell to Mr. Putin is that one does not annex a part of a neighbor country in violation of all international conventions."
Juppe insisted that Russia respect the so-called Minsk accord seeking peace in Ukraine before the EU sanctions can be lifted.
"I don't want France to be the vassal of Washington or Moscow. Neither one nor the other," he insisted.
Putin likely would try to exploit a more-friendly figure in the French presidency to push for abandonment of the European Union sanctions that have hit the Russian economy; French business interests already have called for lifting the sanctions, which would need unanimous approval of the EU's member states.
Russia could also gain from a French president whose interests in Syria were more focused on wiping out terrorist groups rather than ousting Assad. A right-wing figure also probably would be less inclined to take Russia to task over media freedom and democratization issues.
Jim Heintz in Moscow and Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.