French ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy has been knocked out of a primary to choose the presidential candidate of the centre-right Republican party.
Admitting defeat, Mr Sarkozy endorsed Francois Fillon, a moderate who finished first in Sunday’s first round, according to near-complete results.
Alain Juppe, who like Mr Fillon is an ex-prime minister, finished second.
They will face each other in a run-off next Sunday. The winner will compete in next year’s presidential election.
The winner of the Republican primary is likely to make the presidential run-off, where he or she will probably face far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
With the governing socialists unpopular and divided, it seems unlikely that any left-wing candidate will survive the first round in April.
Polls currently suggest that the centre-right candidate would win the second round in May.
In his concession speech, Mr Sarkozy, 61, said: “I have no bitterness, I have no sadness, and I wish the best for my country.”
He told reporters he now supported Mr Fillon, 62, whose “political choices” he said were closer to his own than Mr Juppe’s.
Mr Fillon served as Mr Sarkozy’s prime minister during the latter’s presidency between 2007 and 2012.
Mr Fillon, an anglophile, whose wife is Welsh and who admires Margaret Thatcher, said the result showed a strong movement of hope was under way.
He had promised deep market reforms, and was initially not seen as the top contender. However he has enjoyed a late surge in polls.
“Defeat must not humiliate anyone because we will need everyone,” he said. “I spare a thought particularly for Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s former president.”
Mr Juppe, 71, was regarded as the frontrunner for most of the primary race.
A former prime minister with a technocratic image, he had campaigned as a moderate and a unifying figure in the aftermath of jihadist attacks.
“This first round was a surprise,” Mr Juppe said after it became clear he had come only second. “Next Sunday, if you want it and if I want it, will bring another surprise.”
Mr Sarkozy was widely seen as a more divisive and combative figure than his leading rivals.
In recent years he has been involved in a high-profile scandal over the breach of campaign spending limits in the 2012 election.
In September a judge ruled that Mr Sarkozy should stand trial in the case.
Turnout in the primary first round was higher than anticipated, with almost four million people taking part.