PARIS (AP) — Former President Nicolas Sarkozy and his populist, hard-line stand on Muslims and immigration went down in defeat Sunday in France's conservative primary for president. Two ex-prime ministers will instead meet in a runoff next week for the nomination.
The race was seen as an early measure of how the terror attacks in France over the past two years and the nationalist wave sweeping Europe and the U.S. have shaped the country's political landscape.
With more than 3.8 million votes counted from about 92 percent of polling stations, Francois Fillon had 44.2 percent, Alain Juppe 28.4 percent and Sarkozy 20.7 percent. The final results are not expected until Monday.
The top two vote-getters will compete in the Nov. 27 runoff.
In a speech from his campaign headquarters in Paris, Sarkozy called on his supporters to vote for Fillon — his prime minister from 2007 to 2012 — in the second round.
"I did not succeed in convincing a majority of voters. I do respect and understand the will of those who have chosen for the future other political leaders than me," Sarkozy said. "I have no bitterness, no sadness, and I wish the best for my country."
The winner is expected to have a strong chance of victory in the April-May presidential election, because traditional rivals on the left have been weakened by Socialist Francois Hollande's troubled presidency.
The conservative candidate's main challenger next year may turn out to be far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who is hoping anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-establishment sentiment can propel her to the presidency. Le Pen, the candidate of her once-pariah National Front party, did not take part in any primary.
Sarkozy, Fillon and Juppe had been expected to lead the balloting Sunday.
Of the three, Sarkozy, 61, took the hardest line on immigration and Islam-related issues, in the hope of pulling votes from people attracted to Le Pen. He called for stricter immigration rules across Europe and vowed to ban Muslim women from wearing headscarves at universities and possibly elsewhere.
Fillon — an outsider a few weeks ago — enjoyed a recent boost in popularity thanks to his image of authority and seriousness compared with Sarkozy's more brazen demeanor.
Observers also said the 62-year-old Fillon proved to be the most convincing candidate in the three televised debates. He pushed for strong conservative values, pledging to hold a referendum on a quota system for immigrants and to ban same-sex couples from adoption.
Juppe, 72, promoted a more peaceful vision of French society, based on respect for religious freedom and ethnic diversity.
On the economic front, all candidates called for lower taxes, especially on businesses, and a reduction in the number of public servants. Fillon and Juppe also agreed on giving managers more flexibility by loosening the 35-hour weekly limit on employees' working time.
Other candidates in the French vote were Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, the only woman on the conservative ballot; former government ministers Bruno Le Maire and Jean-Francois Cope; and Parliament member Jean-Frederic Poisson.