Socialist challenger Francois Hollande beat Nicolas Sarkozy in the first round of France's presidential election Sunday, with a resurgent far-right emerging as possible kingmakers in the run-off.
As expected, Hollande and the wounded right-wing incumbent will now face off in the May 6 second-round, but the big surprise of the night was the record score for anti-immigrant, anti-EU flag-bearer Marine Le Pen.
Hollande won between 28 and 29 percent of the vote in the first round, to Sarkozy's 25.5 to 27, and Le Pen won a best-ever 18 to 20 percent, according to estimates compiled from ballot samples by several polling agencies.
"Firstly, I am tonight in the lead among the candidates," Hollande declared before supporters in his rural political stronghold of Tulle. "I am today the best placed candidate to become the next French president.
"The second major lesson to draw from this election -- and this is undeniable -- is that the first round was a punishment and a rejection of the incumbent," he said to cheers.
Sarkozy sought to put positive spin on the result and brandished his right-wing credentials in a clear nod to Le Pen supporters, despite being the first incumbent to lose a first round-vote in modern French history.
"We can enter the second round with confidence and I now call on all French people who put patriotism above partisanship or any special interests to unite and join me," Sarkozy told supporters at a rally in Paris.
Explaining his poor showing as the result of a first round "vote of crisis" amid global economic chaos, he insisted: "These anxieties, this suffering, I know them, I understand them."
"They are about respecting our borders, the determined fight against job relocation, controlling immigration, putting value on work, on security," he said, hitting on a number of key right-wing themes.
Sarkozy also called for three televised debates before the second round but Hollande refused, saying the single planned encounter would be enough.
A jubilant Le Pen addressed her supporters after her National Front party's best ever showing, saying: "The battle of France has just begun ... we have exploded the monopoly of the two parties" -- the Socialists and Sarkozy's UMP.
"Nothing will be as it was before ... the people of France have invited themselves to the table of the elite," she said at a remarkably triumphant rally for a candidate who went out at the first hurdle.
"I will give my opinion on May 1," Le Pen said when asked how her supporters should vote in the second round.
The first opinion poll after the first round said that Hollande would beat Sarkozy by 54 percent to 46 in the second round and that the attitude of Le Pen's supporters could be decisive.
Polling institute Ifop said that 48 percent of her backers would switch to Sarkozy and 31 percent to Hollande, while an OpinionWay poll said 18 percent of her supporters would back the Socialist and 39 percent Sarkozy.
The head of Sarkozy's UMP party, Jean-Francois Cope, said he looked forward to the second round.
"From tomorrow morning, we will no longer be in a case of nine candidates against Nicolas Sarkozy, but we will be one-on-one, Nicolas Sarkozy against Francois Hollande ... then I think the match will be different."
Far left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon was beaten into fourth place with around 11.7 percent, a disappointment for his supporters after a barnstorming campaign, and called on the left to unite to oust Sarkozy.
Turnout was high at at least 80 percent, down on the 84 percent turnout of 2007 but up significantly on the 72 percent of 2002 and belying fears that a low-key campaign would be capped by mass abstention.
The left has not won a presidential election in a quarter of a century, but with France mired in low growth and rising joblessness, opinion polls had long predicted the left would beat the right-wing incumbent.
Hollande says Sarkozy has trapped France in a downward spiral of austerity and job losses, while Sarkozy says his rival is inexperienced and weak-willed and would spark financial panic through reckless spending pledges.
The eurozone debt crisis and France's sluggish growth and high unemployment have hung over the campaign, with Sarkozy struggling to defend his record and Hollande unable to credibly promise spending increases.
Opinion polls and campaigning were banned from midnight on Friday, and will now resume on Monday in the build-up to the May 6 run-off.
Source: AFP Global Edition