Nicolas Sarkozy on Sunday crashed out of the race to elect a Right-wing nominee for next year’s presidential election in France, after François Fillon, a Thatcherite with a Welsh wife, came a spectacular first ahead of Alain Juppé.
The race to pick a nominee for the Republicans party has sparked huge interest as the winner is likely to meet – and defeat – Marine Le Pen, leader of the anti-EU, anti-immigrant Front National, in the definitive presidential run-off next May.
The ballot was open to anyone willing to pay €2 who professes agreement with the values of the centre-Right.
In a surprise outcome, Mr Fillon was on course to finish far out in front in round one.
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With almost all of the 10,000 polling stations counted, Mr Fillon was on 44.2 per cent, Mr Juppé on 28.4 per cent and Mr Sarkozy well behind on 20.7 per cent.
The result was a crushing blow for the ex-French president, who had hoped to reclaim the keys to the Elysée Palace after his defeat to Socialist François Hollande in 2012.
But Mr Sarkozy took his defeat gracefully, bowing out of frontline French politics, perhaps this time for good.
% of voteResults for first round of the French Right’s first everprimary44.228.420.7CandidatesFrançois FillonAlain JuppéNicolas Sarkozy01020304050Highcharts
Addressing his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and his four children, he said: “It’s not easy to live with a man who sparks so much passion. It’s time for me to live a life with more private passion and less public passion. Good luck France.”
Mr Sarkozy had reached out to the far-Right electorate with a muscular stance on national identity, immigration and Islam. That tactic clearly failed. But he urged his supporters not to drop the mainstream Right for the Front National.
He said: “I will ask them never to take the path of extremes. France deserves so much more than the worst choice.”
From left: Francois Fillon, lain Juppe and Nicolas Sarkozy Credit: KENZO TRIBOUILLARD,LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP
Mr Sarkozy then threw his weight behind Mr Fillon, 62.
An admirer of Margaret Thatcher, Mr Fillon has pledged to slash half a million state sector jobs over five years and hack away at rigid labour laws.
Accused of going too far by his rivals, the Paris MP said in his final rally: “I’m tagged with an [economically] liberal label in the same way one would paint crosses on the doors of lepers in the middle ages. But I’m just a pragmatist.”
It’s time for me to live a life with more private passion and less public passion. Good luck FranceNicolas Sarkozy
The calm, competent Anglophile who has five children with his wife Penelope, from Llanover near Abergavenny, was polling to come a distant third weeks ago, but enjoyed a spectacular last-minute surge.
A social conservative who voted against same-sex marriage and is against medically assisted procreation for single women or lesbian couples, he has the support of the traditional Catholic Right.
Mr Fillon gained traction in the final weeks of the campaign after publishing a book on the fight against radical Islam and performing well in televised debates.
He has called for a rapprochement with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to fight Isil in Syria and protect Christian minorities, intimating that this was the priority over ousting Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
French politician Francois Fillon, member of the conservative Les Republicains political party, leaves the polling station Credit: GONZALO FUENTES/Reuters
To cheering supporters clearly stunned at his huge advance over Mr Juppé, Mr Fillon spared a thought for Mr Sarkozy, saying: “Defeat mustn’t humiliate anyone as we will need everyone.”
He promised to “amplify” this unexpected lead in next Sunday’s run-off.
Mr Juppé, a more moderate 71-year-old ex-prime minister, had long been the frontrunner. The mayor of Bordeaux had appealed to centrist and even Left-wing voters to help him bring the French together and create a “happy identity” for a nation plagued by high unemployment and terrorist attacks.
But his consensual message lost ground in recent days with Right-wingers apparently preferring the more socially conservative Mr Fillon.
Former French Prime Minister and Bordeaux’s mayor Alain Juppe, a candidate for France’s presidential primary election, arrives to vote in his fiefdom of Bordeaux Credit: Bob Edme/AP
However, Mr Juppé insisted: “I have decided to continue the fight. I believe that more than ever the people of France need to come together”, pledging to “to bar the route to the Front National that would drag us on the worst of paths.”
“A fight between one project and another begins tomorrow. The first round turned out to be a surprise. Next Sunday, if you so wish, and if I wish is, will be another surprise.”
With at least 3.5 million ballots cast, turnout surpassed expectations for the first round of the French Right’s first ever primary.
With the French Left in tatters, many non-Right wingers wanted to have their say over the man likely to become France’s next president. Many expressed their intention to bar Mr Sarkozy’s return in favour of Mr Juppé. But an even higher percentage of Right-wingers dropped Mr Sarkozy in favour of Mr Fillon.
After a bitter 2012 leadership battled that descended into angry accusations of electoral fraud, the centre-Right was desperate for the primary election to go without a hitch, which all agreed had been the case.
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Ms Le Pen, who is convinced that Donald Trump’s election in the wake of Brexit could see her triumph next May, insisted that the centre-Right was now dancing to her tune.
“Never have they talked so much in this primary about security, never have they been so against savage globalisation, never have they spoken so much about protectionism,” she told France 3. “I’m not adapting to them, they’re adapting to me.”
She predicted that the primary results could see some defeated mainstream Right-wingers defect to her camp and spell “the recomposition of political life that everyone can feel coming, and which will come about before or after the presidential elections.”