The political comeback of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy ended abruptly on Sunday when he conceded he would not be reaching the run-off of the centre-right primaries to fight for the presidency next year.
A late surge of support for François Fillon caused a major upset as about 4m voters headed to the polls in the first step of a process expected to give France its next president.
Just before dawn in Paris, with results from 93 per cent of polling stations counted, the 62-year-old former prime minister — long the third man in the race — had 44.1 per cent of the vote. Alain Juppé, another former prime minister and until recently the favourite, was in second place with 28.6 per cent, with Mr Sarkozy third on 20.6 per cent.
For the former president, failure to finish among the top two candidates is another devastating blow after losing the 2012 presidential election to François Hollande.
Mr Sarkozy had gone back on a vow to abandon politics by seizing the helm of his Republicans party in 2014 and promising “a blast”.
On Sunday night, the former leader hinted he would this time retire for good, and announced he would back Mr Fillon in the second round.
“I haven’t succeeded in convincing a majority of French voters,” Mr Sarkozy said, visibly moved. “It’s time for me to live a life with more private passions and fewer public passions. Good luck France.”
Mr Fillon, a conservative Catholic who has developed a free-market platform and advocated a rapprochement with Russian President Vladimir Putin, said: “Everywhere the French told me of their desire for freedom, authority and respect. I spare a special thought for Nicolas Sarkozy who was president of France.”
The outcome is also a disappointment for Mr Juppé, who has sought to appeal to a broad swath of the centre of the political spectrum with liberal values and a more moderate stance on the economy. He now faces an uphill battle to win the second round.
On Sunday, he emphasised the need to prevent the resurgent far-right party National Front from reaching power in the presidential run-off next year.
“I have decided to continue the fight,” Mr Juppé said. “Today was a surprise, but [next] Sunday will be another surprise.”
Pollsters expect that the winner of the Republicans and centrist primaries will face — and beat — far-right leader Marine Le Pen in presidential elections next year, with no candidates on the left — including Socialist President Hollande — seeming likely to have enough support to qualify for the second round.
The high stakes pushed voters to turn out en masse on Sunday for the first ever French rightwing primary.
Voters did not need to be party members or even sympathisers to take part in this groundbreaking centre-right primary. All registered voters were allowed to cast their ballot for one of the seven contenders provided they paid €2 and signed a charter stating they respected centre-right Republican values. Yet 15 per cent of those who intended to vote were leftwing sympathisers.
The unexpected outcome of the primaries has reinforced the sense of upheaval in the French political mainstream — shaken by the anti-elite uprising behind Donald Trump’s election as US president and the UK’s vote to leave the EU as well as the electoral gains of Ms Le Pen’s National Front.