The leader of this movement, Charles Pasqua, a former Gaullist cabinet minister, immediately announced he would found a new party - Rassemblement pour La France - to lay claim to what remains of the conservative, nationalist and populist Gaullist heritage.
The RPR, the neo-Gaullist party founded by President Jacques Chirac in 1976, seems unlikely to survive in its present form. After years of policy zigzags to suit the personal ambitions of Mr Chirac, the RPR appears to have confused and shaken off its own grass roots.
The President's popularity remains very high but he faces the prospect of fighting a presidential election in three years' time with his party in ruins and the wider centre-right divided sharply against him.
After scoring only 12.7 per cent on Sunday, the RPR will decide next week whether to replace the willing but unpopular Nicolas Sarkozy as party chairman. Mr Sarkozy, although a likeable and effective politician, sums up the Gaullists' problems. The party was founded on blue-collar, rural or provincial, gut-conservatism, nationalism, stateism and suspicion of Europe. Mr Sarkozy, mayor of one of the wealthiest Paris suburbs, typifies the drift of the party leaders towards a fashionable, urban liberalism and support for European federalism.
Mr Pasqua, who has joined forces with the late Sir James Goldsmith's former Eurosceptic running mate Philippe de Villiers, hopes his new party will recapture the old Gaullist constituency, which has drifted in part to the far right. Sunday's relative failure of both Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front (5.7 per cent) and the breakaway movement of Bruno Megret (3.4 per cent) suggests that Pasqua, aged 72, could become - perhaps briefly - an important force in French politics.
Mr Chirac's best bet could be to found a movement based on the kind of policies he has pursued, intermittently, in office: pro-European, pro- market and against the excesses of the state. However, his options have been further limited by the emergence of a strong, pro-European, centre party - built on the ruins of the centre-right UDF federation - by Francois Bayrou (who won a creditable 9.7 per cent).
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