Sarkozy out as Fillon and Juppé advance to second round of French conservative primary
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French ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy saw his ambition to lead the country for a second time dashed on Sunday, as he suffered a crushing defeat to his former prime minister, François Fillon, in the first round of the French conservative primary.
With the results from the vast majority of polling stations in, Fillon won an emphatic 44.1 percent of the vote, with Juppé garnering 28.2 percent and Sarkozy 21.0 percent.
As the results trickled in, and the gap between Sarkozy and Juppé grew, Sarkozy had little choice but to concede.
Sarkozy, president from 2007-12, declared he would withdraw from political life at an emotional press conference, during which he gave his backing to Fillon in the run-off vote next Sunday.
"I failed to convince a majority of voters," Sarkozy told supporters and reporters at his campaign headquarters in a rain-sodden Paris.
"I hold Alain Juppé in the highest esteem, but I feel closer to François Fillon's politics," he said, formally endorsing his former prime minister.
"I wish the best for France and for the person who will lead the country that I love," Sarkozy added later on Twitter.
Juppé to 'continue the fight'
Fillon's resounding win in the first round has suprised many here in France, with many commentators labelling him a political has-been. The conservative, 62, is an admirer of late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and a rare economic liberal in largely statist France. Until a week ago, he had been trailing Juppé and Sarkozy in the polls before a late surge in support turned him into a serious contender.
Fillon also received the support of ex-government minister Bruno Le Maire, who also ran in the primary. The most centrist of the seven contenders in the primaries, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet threw her weight behind 71-year-old Juppé.
Speaking after his victory, Fillon paid homage to those candidates who did not make it to the second round, and in particular to Sarkozy.
"Defeat should humiliate no one, and we need everyone", Fillon said.
The winner of next week's second round and far-right National Front (FN) leader Marine le Pen will likely challenge for the presidency, according to pollsters. Furthermore, Le Pen's criticism of France's immigration policies and Islamist extremism has played particularly well with disillusioned Les Républicains voters.
Juppé, meanwhile, vowed to "continue the fight", despite the large margin by which he trails Fillon after the first round. "I want to bring French voters together around credible, fair reforms," he told cheering supporters.
A poll published by Opinionway following Sunday’s election found that 56 percent of voters said they would back Fillon in the second round, compared to 44 percent for Juppé.
Battle with Le Pen
Socialist President François Hollande, who is deeply unpopular, has yet to announce whether he himself will stand again in May's presidential election. However, with France's left in disarray, whichever candidate the Socialists put forward will have little hope of making it to the second round of the 2017 presidential vote.
That means whoever wins the conservative primary will likely face Le Pen for the presidency.
But with opinion polls indicating that the majority of French voters are opposed to the FN, the Les Républicains nominee is being strongly tipped for victory.
While polls have consistently shown that Juppé could easily beat Le Pen, there have been few recent polls on how Fillon would fare in such a match – further adding to the evidence that Fillon has caught everyone off guard.
Polls have shown that Fillon, who received vocal backing from the controversial opponents of France's gay marriage laws, is much less popular than Juppé amid left-wing voters, which could make it harder for him to win against the politically shrewd Le Pen.
Juppé, a moderate conservative campaigning on an inclusive platform, had for months been ahead in polls. But, over the past week, the contest was turned on its head and became a tight race between the three men.
The is the Les Républicains party first ever presidential primary, with nominees previously chosen internally by the party.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)