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.
Since his return to politics two years ago, Mr Sarkozy has seen his dominance of the centre-right leach steadily to his rivals. He banked on a hard-right agenda, sailing close to the policies of far-right leader Marine Le Pen on issues like security, immigration and French identity.
Whether it’s his policies that have apparently alienated France, his previous record as president, or the scandals that have dogged him since he left, Mr Sarkozy is out of next year’s presidential race before it’s truly begun.
With approval ratings for France’s Socialist president at historic lows, this primary contest is seen by some as an unofficial first round in France’s presidential election, as whoever wins the centre-right nomination is expected to battle the far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the run-off for the Elysee Palace next year.
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.