Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy and his populist, hard-line stand on Muslims and immigration has been defeated in the conservative primary ahead of next year's presidential election.
Two ex-prime ministers will now meet in a run-off 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 US have shaped the country's political landscape.
With more than 3.8 million votes counted from about 92% of polling stations, Francois Fillon had 44.2%, Alain Juppe 28.4% and Mr Sarkozy 20.7%. The final results are not expected until later today.
The top two will compete in the November 27 run-off.
In a speech from his campaign headquarters in Paris, Mr Sarkozy called on his supporters to vote for Mr 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," Mr 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, as 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. Ms Le Pen, the candidate of her once-pariah National Front party, did not take part in any primary.
Mr Sarkozy, Mr Fillon and Mr Juppe had been expected to lead the balloting on Sunday.
Of the three, Mr Sarkozy, 61, took the hardest line on immigration and Islam-related issues, in the hope of pulling votes from people attracted to Ms Le Pen. He called for stricter immigration rules across Europe and vowed to ban Muslim women from wearing headscarves at universities and possibly elsewhere.
Mr Fillon - an outsider a few weeks ago - enjoyed a recent boost in popularity thanks to his image of authority and seriousness compared with Mr Sarkozy's more brazen demeanour.
Observers also said the 62-year-old Mr 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.
Mr 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. Mr Fillon and Mr 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.