PARIS?Nicolas Sarkozy's campaign to reclaim the French presidency came to an abrupt end after a surge of support for his former prime minister, notching another upset in a year of electoral upheaval for the West's political establishment.

Mr. Sarkozy, who centered his campaign on pledges for hard-line security measures and a clampdown on immigration, was hobbled in the conservative primary race by Franç ois Fillon, his once-close ally who ran on a pledge to deliver a shock to the French economy with deep spending cuts and labor overhauls.

Less than a month ago, polls credited Mr. Fillon with less than 15% of the first-round vote. On Sunday, results from 9,347 of the 10,229 polling stations across the country showed he won 44.2% of the votesin a field of seven candidates, ahead of the 28.5% received by Bordeaux Mayor Alain Juppé , who recent polls showed had been the favorite to win the primary. Mr. Sarkozy, by contrast, won just 20.6% of votes.

"Hope has shown itself with strength everywhere in France, demolishing all the predictions," Mr. Fillon said.

Mr. Fillon and Mr. Juppé will now advance to a runoff next Sunday. Mr. Sarkozy, who conceded defeat late Sunday, said he would throw his support behind Mr. Fillon. "It is time for me to attempt a life with more private passion and less public passion," Mr. Sarkozy said.

The former French leader's elimination in the first round and Mr. Fillon's surprise rise to front-runner upend a conservative primary that has centered on how to stop the rise of National Front leader Marine Le Pen.

That focus intensified in the wake of the Brexit decision and Donald Trump's election. Like those earlier surprises, however, French voters on Sunday displayed a willingness to defy the predictions of pundits and machine politicians.

Polls show the winner of the conservative primary next Sunday is well placed to win the first round of the general election and go head-to-head against Ms. Le Pen in a runoff in May.

With Mr. Sarkozy's departure from the race, the French right loses a battle-tested campaigner who proposed challenging Ms. Le Pen on her own turf with anti-immigrant, hard-line security policies.

Mr. Sarkozy had sought to lure National Front voters by pushing a plan to suspend the right of immigrants to bring their families to France and to lock up people on intelligence watch lists who haven't been charged with a crime.

Mr. Juppé , meanwhile, tacked in the other direction, proposing to form a broad coalition against the National Front. He espoused a "happy identity" for France that respects differences and overcomes social tensions.

"Voters who supported me are free to decide, but I ask them to never take the path of extremes," Mr. Sarkozy said Sunday night.

Mr. Fillon's arrival in the primary's second round is likely to shift the focus of the race to fighting to France's stagnant economy.

The 62-year-old, who served as prime minister between 2007 and 2012, argues that the malaise behind all of France's woes is economic and financial. The most pro-business of the candidates, he proposes scrapping swaths of France's labor code, ditching the 35-hour workweek, taking power from labor unions and increasing sales taxes on consumers to help fund tax breaks for business.

He has also advocated tough spending cuts, rooted in a plan to abolish around half a million public-sector jobs. "With our mountain of debt, we are sliding toward bankruptcy," Mr. Fillon said Friday in his final campaign speech before the first-round vote.

Mr. Juppé has outlined a milder treatment for France's economic problems. If president, he has said he wouldn't raise sales taxes so sharply and would cut fewer public-sector jobs.

If Mr. Sarkozy's supporters follow him to vote for Mr. Fillon, Mr. Juppé will stand little chance of winning the second-round vote. The 71-year-old acknowledged that the first-round vote means he has lost his position as favorite.

"This first round was a surprise," Mr. Juppé said. "Next Sunday, if like me you desire it, will be another surprise."

Write to William Horobin at William.Horobin@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 20, 2016 20:35 ET (01:35 GMT)

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