Socialist challenger Francois Hollande has narrowly won the first round of France’s presidential election, setting himself up for a May 6 runoff with incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy.
Hollande beat the conservative Sarkozy in Sunday’s 10-candidate first round by 28.6 per cent to 27.1 per cent, the interior ministry said, with 99 per cent of votes counted.
Marine Le Pen’s National Front came third with 18 per cent, the highest result so far for the far-right party.
Le Pen’s surprisingly strong showing could now throw open opinion poll projections that had given Hollande a 10-point lead in the runoff.
Speaking to his supporters, Hollande said he would refocus Europe’s crisis response on growth and jobs if he won the presidency.
“My final duty, and I know I’m being watched from beyond our borders, is to put Europe back on the path of growth and employment,” he said.
Sarkozy, in his address, challenged Hollande to three televised debates ahead of the runoff, the results of which will decide France’s president for the next five years.
Le Pen, 43, daughter of former paratrooper and National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, said: “The battle of France has only just begun.”
She declared that her wave of support was “shaking the system” of mainstream consensus politics. “We are now the only real opposition,” Le Pen said.
Her breakthrough mirrored advances by anti-establishment Eurosceptical populists from Amsterdam and Vienna to Helsinki and Athens, as anger over austerity, unemployment and bailout fatigue deepen due to the eurozone’s grinding debt crisis.
Hard-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon came fourth with 12 per cent, while centrist Francois Bayrou garnered nine per cent. A handful of outsiders rounded out the field.
Voting began on Saturday in France’s oversees territories, which are mainly islands dotted around the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
Voter turnout was surprisingly high, at more than 80 per cent, officials said.
Inside France, voting took place on Sunday in 85,000 polling stations across the country’s European mainland. Casting of ballots began at 8am local time and continued until 8pm.
Al Jazeera’s Nadim Baba, reporting from Paris, said the key thing about the results from Sunday’s vote was that “It’s the first time that the serving president, running for re-election, hasn’t been in front in the first round.
“But the real breakthrough belongs to the National Front, the far-right,” he said.
“Persident Sarkozy has said that the French have thrown away the predictions, and what he is really talking about is acknowledging that there has been a massive protest vote and the far-right have done better than the opinion polls said.
“What is crucial now is that [for the runoff] Nicolas Sarkozy may have to try and attract more of those voters, the far-right voters, perhaps even shift his discourse further towards the right … But in doing so he may lose some of his centrist voters, and that is the risk,” Baba added.
Three French polls conducted on Sunday evening as results that came in predicted Hollande would win next month’s runoff by eight to 12 percentage points.
Ipsos, CSA and IFOP said their soundings showed worries about jobs and personal income which drove many voters.
Not all the voters were enthusiastic. Wilson Cohen, who voted in the 4th district of Paris, told Al Jazeera that he had little faith in the candidates.
“They [the candidates] are all the same. As soon as they get into power, they forget about us,” he said. “A lot of people have barely enough money to feed themselves after they pay their rent. But no one is talking about that.”
Sylvie Renaud Poulet, meanwhile, told Al Jazeera that she was “very afraid” about what the election results might be.
“The big issue [of the election] is to save France and to save Europe,” she said.
“I’m very concerned that many people will vote for candidates who are not reasonable, who offer things that are not possible in the current state of France.”
‘Future of Europe’
“This is an election that will weigh on the future of Europe. That’s why many people are watching us,” said Hollande after voting in Tulle, a town in central France.
“They’re wondering not so much what the winner’s name will be, but especially what policies will follow.
“That’s why I’m not in a competition just of personalities. I am in a competition in which I must give new breath of life to my country and a new commitment to Europe.”
Hollande said that Sarkozy had trapped France in a spiral of austerity and job losses, and called for the European response to the debt crisis to be more pro-growth.
Sarkozy, meanwhile, says that his rival is weak-willed and would cause panic in financial markets by adopting an approach that involves increased government spending.
Yasmine Ryan reported from Paris. Follow her for latest updates: @yasmineryan