Right-winger Ciotti wins 1st round of French conservative party leadership vote

FILE PHOTO: French lawmakers debate giving constitutional protection to abortion rights

PARIS (Reuters) - Right-winger Eric Ciotti is in poll position to become the next leader of France's formerly heavyweight conservative Les Republicains (LR) party after winning a first round ballot of party members on Sunday.

Ciotti, who is on record as saying he wants to stop what he calls a "migratory invasion" of France, polled 42.7% and will face Bruno Retailleau, a senator who polled 34.5%, in a second-round runoff, LR said in a statement.

LR or its predecessors have governed France for much of its post-war history.

However, squeezed between centrist President Emmanuel Macron on one side and the far-right National Rally of Marine Le Pen on the other, the LR candidate in April's presidential election, Valerie Pecresse, won just 4.78% of the votes.

"I want to be the candidate of hope and of the return of a big political family on the right," Ciotti said in a tweet following Sunday's vote.

Both Ciotti, whose home base is the traditionally right-wing Nice region, and Retailleau are politically further to the right than outgoing LR leader Christian Jacob.

LR remains a key force in parliament, however, as Macron - who lost his legislative majority in parliament - often relies on the party to get his government's bills voted through.

(Reporting by GV De Clercq, editing by John Stonestreet)