France was today expected to elect its first truly Thatcherite leader of the right, with Francois Fillon in pole position to take on the far-right Front National.
A last-minute poll showed Fillon, a former Prime Minister, winning the presidential primary nomination for his Republicains Party, with 61 per cent of the vote, against 39 per cent for his more moderate rival, Alain Juppe.
The race to see who will almost certainly face Marine Le Pen of the FN in a presidential run-off next year has attracted huge interest in France, drawing four million voters to the polls in the first round.
Fillon was seen as a no-hoper even a month ago, but at his final rally in Paris at the weekend, up to 10,000 flag-waving supporters roared as they were told France must "change everything so that nothing will change". The quote perhaps best sums up the "tornado" of support, as he called it, for the 62-year-old. A Fillon victory could usher in what some are calling a "Conservative revolution" via a mixing of economic liberalism with social conservatism, the likes of which France has never seen.
Nicolas Sarkozy, the President from 2007 to 2012, under whom Fillon served as a brow-beaten Prime Minister, was knocked out in the first round.
Crucially, Fillon has enticed a normally quiet part of the French electorate - the ageing, socially conservative bourgeoisie from its provinces - to take an interest in the debate.
The father-of-five, from the rural Sarthe in western France, has spoken out for the sort of traditional, Catholic family values that sparked mass protests against gay marriage in 2013.
He has declared himself against multiculturalism and on Saturday demanded that "the Islamic religion accept what all the others have accepted in the past ... that radicalism and provocation have no place here".
Almost half of those who backed him a week ago were retirees. They appear ready to break with France's statist tradition to try out Fillon's free-market programme, provided he takes on the unions and restores France's international standing. He has pledged to slash half a million state jobs, jettison the 35-hour week and pay civil servants 37 hours for working 39 - measures his rival calls "brutal" and unworkable.
Patrick Buisson, an electoral analyst, said a Fillon victory would be a sea change for the French right. A Fillon win would limit the ability of Marine Le Pen to make progress among the right-wing electorate "and that is a major development".