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In a year of shocking ballot-box upsets, what's truly shocking is that anyone could be so shocked by another one. Yet, France's political establishment was knocked off its chair by François Fillon's first-place finish in last Sunday's opening round of the Republicans' primary. With it, every assumption about the country's 2017 presidential election went down the drain.

Mr. Fillon, a phlegmatic former prime minister, is no French version of Donald Trump or Nigel Farage. He's no populist demagogue who insulted his way into the hearts of a dispossessed white working class. But his ability to mobilize a long-neglected conservative French electorate, attached to the country's Catholic traditions, demonstrated once again the disconnectedness of the elites.

Will France's religious right now carry Mr. Fillon all the way to the Élysée Palace?

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No one saw Mr. Fillon's rise coming until the final hours before Sunday's primary, when 4.27 million French voters turned out to nominate the person who would carry the centre-right Republican banner in next spring's presidential vote. For weeks, opinion polls had predicted another former prime minister, Alain Juppé, would coast to a first-place finish. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy was supposed to come second, setting up a Nov. 27 run-off between the two.

Instead, Mr. Fillon surged into first with 44 per cent of the vote; Mr. Juppé got a disappointing 28 per cent and Mr. Sarkozy a humiliating 20 per cent. Unchastened French pundits are now forecasting a Fillon sweep in this Sunday's runoff, although a final debate between Mr. Fillon and Mr. Juppé on Thursday night could end up determining the winner.

Finishing third was the ultimate repudiation of Mr. Sarkozy, the polarizing former head of state who earned the nickname President Bling-Bling for his penchant for hanging out with plutocrats and wearing Prada. He based his political comeback on a hardline approach toward immigration and national security, with a platform nearly as far to the right as that of the National Front.

Still, it wasn't Mr. Sarkozy's policies that did him in; it was his personality. When enough right-leaning Republican voters concluded he was too toxic to overtake the centrist Mr. Juppé in the final round, much less win back the presidency, they fled to Mr. Fillon in droves.

Mr. Juppé had been counting on polls showing him handily beating National Front Leader Marine Le Pen in a presidential runoff election next May to convince enough Republicans he was their man. With no Socialist candidate likely qualifying for the final presidential ballot, left-leaning French voters, it was thought, would defect en masse to Mr. Juppé to prevent the extremist Ms. Le Pen from winning.

Republican voters, unimpressed by Mr. Juppé's mushy shape-shifting, may now have other plans. If Mr. Fillon emerges as the party's candidate after Sunday's runoff, the entire configuration of the 2017 presidential race risks being turned on its head.

Mr. Fillon favours the same tax-cutting, tough-on-terrorism policies as most other Republican candidates. What distinguishes him is his call for a French rapprochement with Russia and his opposition to the current Socialist government's 2013 move to legalize same-sex marriage.

Protests against the law turned out to be unexpectedly large, underscoring the deep conservatism of parts of French society. Mr. Fillon, a practising Catholic who also opposes abortion, hitched his star to the anti-gay-marriage movement and has vowed as president to reverse parts of the law that allow gay couples to adopt, saying "a child is always the fruit of a father and mother."

Although France is known for its anti-clerical history, young French Catholics have become increasingly assertive and politically active. Mr. Fillon has won their support by targeting a conservative electorate uncomfortable with Ms. Le Pen's ardent support for French secularism. Her 26-year-old niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, a National Front member of the National Assembly, somewhat makes up for her twice-divorced aunt's secular views by fervently expressing her own orthodox Catholicism. But she, too, is a recent divorcée.

To counter Mr. Fillon's rise, the National Front has taken to attacking his "Thatcherite" economic program, which includes deep cuts to taxes and public spending, increasing the retirement age and ending France's 35-hour work week. The National Front has promised to preserve France's welfare state, a key element in its appeal to working-class voters.

But if Mr. Fillon does win on Sunday, Ms. Le Pen's hopes for a Trump-like victory of her own next spring will have hit a major snag.

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