By ANGELA CHARLTON, Associated Press
PARIS (AP) — 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.
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."