PARIS - Francois Hollande, a mild-mannered French Socialist who wants to take better care of the jobless and the poor, is heading to a presidential runoff election against tough-on-immigration Nicolas Sarkozy in a vote that could alter Europe's political and economic landscape.
Hollande heads into the May 6 second round with the upper hand after narrowly edging the conservative Sarkozy in the first round of France's voting Sunday, according to near-complete official results.
In the campaign's biggest surprise, nearly one in five voters chose far right candidate Marine Le Pen instead, handing her a solid third place and a chance to weigh in on French politics with her anti-immigration platform that targets France's millions of Muslims.
French President and UMP candidate Nicolas Sarkozy gestures as he speaks at his campaign headquarters after the first round of French presidential elections in Paris, France, Sunday. Socialist Francois Hollande and conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy are heading for a runoff in their race for France's presidency, according to partial official results in a vote that could alter the European political and economic landscape.
With 93 percent of the vote counted, Hollande had 28.4 percent of the ballots cast and Sarkozy 27 percent, according to figures released by the Interior Ministry.
Le Pen was in third with 18.3 percent of the vote so far, the best showing ever by the far right National Front party founded by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen. In fourth place was leftist firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon with 11 percent, followed by centrist Francois Bayrou with 9.1 percent and five other candidates with minimal support.
Turnout was also surprisingly high, at more than 80 percent, despite concern that a campaign focusing on nostalgia for a more protected past would fail to inspire voters.
Hollande, a 57-year-old who has worried financial markets with his pledges to boost government spending, vowed Sunday night to cut France's huge debts, boost growth and unite the French after Sarkozy's divisive first term.
"Tonight I become the candidate of all the forces who want to turn one page and turn over another," Hollande, displaying a confidence and stately air he has often lacked during the campaign, told an exuberant crowd in his political fiefdom of Tulle in central France.
Sarkozy, speaking at his campaign headquarters on Paris' Left Bank, said he recognized voters' concerns about jobs and immigration, and "the concern of our compatriots to preserve their way of life."
Ten candidates faced off for Sunday's first round of voting, a referendum on Sarkozy at a time when many French voters are worried about high joblessness and weak economic prospects and the president is seen as too cozy with the rich.
"Hollande should be happy. ... Sarkozy's objective was to beat him. It will be very difficult for Sarkozy now," said Damien Philippot of polling agency IFOP. "When you see the results it's clearly a vote of sanction for Nicolas Sarkozy."
Three French polls conducted Sunday evening as results came in predicted Hollande would win the May 6 runoff by 8 to 12 percentage points. Ipsos, CSA and IFOP said their soundings showed worries about jobs and personal income which drove many voters.
Sarkozy is battling to avoid becoming France's first one-term president since Valery Giscard d'Estaing lost to Socialist Francois Mitterrand in 1981. Sarkozy has said he'll pull out of politics if he loses.
The race is on now to sway Le Pen's voters for the decisive second round. Le Pen herself told AP last week that she was not going to give instructions to her voters.
While Sarkozy has borrowed some of her anti-immigrant rhetoric and campaign themes of national identity, Le Pen has repeatedly criticized Sarkozy and says he is a has-been with no chance of returning to office.
The Socialist camp - not a natural ally for Le Pen supporters - reached out to her voters after Sunday's result.
"We also have to think of those who are angry," who feel forgotten and humiliated by Sarkozy's first term, Socialist Party chief Martine Aubry said.
Sarkozy ally and Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, asked by the AP about Le Pen's strong showing, said, "We have to speak to these French people - that doesn't mean doing a party-to-party accord, surely not. Their aspirations must be taken into account, and Nicolas Sarkozy has largely done that by developing certain themes like a Europe that protects us against some mishaps of globalization."
Le Pen rails against Europe, what she claims is the Islamization of France and the "system" of bankers and decision-makers that she says is ruining France. She said Sunday that the "battle of France has just begun."
Le Pen said in the interview last week with The Associated Press that she would consider it a victory if she matched the first-round score of her father in 2002. That year, he got nearly 16.8 percent of the vote and was propelled into the final round and a face-off with then-President Jacques Chirac.
Anti-racism group SOS Racisme said Le Pen's victory could represent "a major danger for democracy." It blamed Sarkozy for allowing Le Pen's party to push extremist themes to the front of the national debate, and urged the candidates for the runoff "to put equality, more than ever, at the heart of their plans."
"This is an election that will weigh on the future of Europe. That's why many people are watching us," said Hollande after voting.
Whatever happens to France's leadership will affect the rest of the 27-nation European Union.
France was one of six countries that in the 1950s founded the predecessor of the EU, and is the eurozone's second-largest economy after Germany.
Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel - a tandem that some call "Merkozy" - have championed a treaty on budget austerity for the 17-nation eurozone. But Hollande wants the treaty to also address economic growth, not just cost-cutting.
Julien Vadrot, 18, in his last year in high school, said he voted for Sarkozy "because he seems the best in this crisis. For five years, he held the country together ... and kept the country standing better than the other (countries)" like Spain, Portugal or Italy, he said. "It's lost less than the other euro countries."
At a time when voters across Europe have ousted incumbents amid economic woes, a Hollande victory would tilt the continent's political balance to the left even as other leading European nations have governments on the right.
Hollande, who wants to tax high-income earners at 75 percent, has tapped into a fear of the free market that has always held more sway in France than almost anywhere in the West, and has enjoyed a resurgence in the era of Occupy Wall Street and anti-banker backlash.
Foreign policy has barely played a role in this campaign but will be a big part of the next president's job. Candidates of many stripes want to bring France's 3,600 troops home from the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, and Hollande has vowed a fast timetable: A pullout by the end of this year.
Sarkozy said he wants three debates before the May 6 runoff, on the economy, society and international affairs. But Hollande dismissed that, saying one debate, as had been previously planned, is plenty.
"Because (Sarkozy) is in a very difficult situation he wants to change the rules. But you can't change the rules. When you are a bad student, you get bad grades, you cannot ask to change professors," Hollande said as he left Tulle late Sunday night for Paris.
Sarah DiLorenzo, Elaine Ganley, Jamey Keaten, Thomas Adamson, Cecile Brisson, Sylvie Corbet, Greg Keller, Jonathan Shenfield in Paris, and Masha Macpherson in Tulle contributed to this report.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.