France’s former president Nicolas Sarkozy has conceded defeat in the race to choose the conservative nominee for next year’s presidential election.
Ex-prime ministers Francois Fillon and Alain Juppe both out-polled Sarkozy in early returns, and stand to advance to the November 27 runoff.
In a speech from his campaign headquarters in Paris on Sunday, Sarkozy called on his supporters to vote for Fillon in the second round.
“I hold Alain Juppe in high esteem, but I feel closer to Francois Fillon’s political choices,” Sarkozy told supporters. “I will therefore vote for him in the second round of the primary.”
“I have no bitterness, no sadness, and I wish all the best for my country, for you my fellow citizens. And for the one who will lead this country I love so much,” he added.
With more than 3.2 million votes counted of an estimated total of five million, Fillon had 44 percent, Juppe 28.1, and Sarkozy 21.1.
Fillon has enjoyed a strong boost in popularity in recent weeks thanks to his image of authority and seriousness compared with Sarkozy’s more brazen demeanour.
“I am very sad for Nicolas Sarkozy and for our political family,” Rachida Dati, a former justice minister under Sarkozy, told France 2 television.
With the left very divided and a majority of voters seen in opinion polls to be opposed to seeing the far-right National Front in power, the chosen centre-right nominee is likely to defeat party leader Marine Le Pen in an expected election runoff next May.
But while polls have consistently shown the 71-year-old Juppe would easily beat Le Pen, there have been no recent surveys on how Fillon would fare in such a match.
Until a week ago, Fillon, 62, a social conservative with economically liberal ideas, trailed Juppe and Sarkozy badly in polls and had not been expected to go through to the second round of the primaries.
Bruno Le Maire, seen as having come fourth in the contest, threw his weight behind Fillon, who was prime minister under Sarkozy, saying he would cast his vote for him next Sunday.
Juppe, a moderate conservative campaigning on an inclusive, “happy identity” platform, had for months been ahead in polls.
But over the past week the contest has been transformed into a tight race between the three men.
Sarkozy had sought to tap into populist sentiment while Fillon was proposing tough measures to shake up the economy.
Were Fillon to get 50 percent of the votes after all votes are counted this Sunday, he would automatically become the conservatives candidate for the election.