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  • Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy casts his vote in Paris, on Nov. 20, 2016.

    Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy casts his vote in Paris, on Nov. 20, 2016. | Photo: AFP

Published 20 November 2016

Only the top two candidates will progress to next Sunday's run-off.

Former president Nicolas Sarkozy endured a humiliating loss in the first round of France's Republican party presidential primary Sunday as he placed third with more than half of polling stations reporting.

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Sarkozy's former prime minister Francois Fillon took a commanding lead in the two-round primary that is widely expected to decide the country's next leader. In a major upset, Fillon had more than 43 percent of the vote to 26.7 percent for former prime minister Alain Juppe and just under 23 percent for Sarkozy, according to the official tallies.

Only the top two candidates will progress to next Sunday's run-off.

If the results are confirmed, Fillon has pulled off an unexpected come-from-behind victory in the first round after trailing Sarkozy and Juppe in all but the final days of the two-month campaign.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen has cast a shadow over the contest because whoever wins the nomination is tipped to face her in the decisive presidential run-off next May.

With France's ruling Socialist party bitterly divided, the campaign was heavily influenced by the British voters' choice to leave the European Union and Donald Trump's shock victory in the U.S. election.

Voters appeared to have chosen the more understated style of Fillon over the brashness of Sarkozy, who still deeply divides France four years after being pushed out of office by the Socialist Francois Hollande.

Juppe was the early frontrunner in the campaign but the pro-business, pro-austerity Fillon made stunning progress, surging up the opinion polls in recent days.

Turnout was high with more than four million voters casting ballots, according to a preliminary count.

It appeared that the participation of left-wing voters in the first ever Republican party primary could have been a significant factor in dragging down Sarkozy. Anyone who paid two euros and signed a declaration of adherence to "the values of the centre and the right" could take part. Many left-wing voters are thought to have voted just to vote against Sarkozy.

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One Socialist voter, a sports teacher in his 50s who identified himself only as Eric, said he was taking part to vote against Sarkozy, "I'm fed up with that guy, he thinks he is all-powerful and he has been involved in too many scandals. Juppe, despite everything else, is the opposite," he told AFP as he cast his vote in the Paris suburb of Pantin.

Sarkozy faces many investigations since he left office after what was dubbed a "bling-bling" presidency because of his flashy lifestyle.

Sarkozy, Juppe and Fillon have broadly similar programs, underpinned by pledges to reinforce domestic security in a country still under a state of emergency following the deadly attacks, while pursuing a neoliberal economic agenda. They also share a desire to reinforce European borders and reduce immigration, while tax cuts also loom large. Ultimately, the choice seemed to come down to style.

Fillon, who is popular in the business world, has promised "radical" economic measures and is the most conservative of the three on social issues.

The winner of the second round of voting on Nov. 27 is expected to trigger an announcement from Hollande on whether he intends to run for re-election despite the lowest popularity ratings of any post-war French president.

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