France's Sarkozy Faces Election Runoff

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is heading for a runoff in the race for the presidency. After a first round of voting, he trailed Socialist Francois Hollande. Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen finished a strong third. The top two candidates head to a runoff May 6.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

President Nicolas Sarkozy and socialist rival Francois Hollande were the top vote-getters in the first round of the French presidential election today. They'll head to a runoff on May 6. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris sent us this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The crowd erupted at Sarkozy's headquarters as the first round results were announced. There is still much suspense in France about a presidential election because the law forbids any exit polling or predictions before all polls close at 8:00 p.m. Socialist candidate Francois Hollande appeared to be in first place with at least 28 percent of the vote; incumbent Sarkozy trailed slightly with about 26 percent. Sarkozy supporter Djamila Semoudi says the president's showing was high enough.

DJAMILA SEMOUDI: I feel it's good for Nicolas now, because the first estimations here, it's near Hollande.

BEARDSLEY: Sarkozy's total means he can win against Hollande in the second round, says Semoudi. Her friend Miluda Quessette agrees.

MILUDA QUESSETTE: (Through translator) We were a bit stressed, but it's OK. I'm persuaded that he will win the second tour, no doubt. He's the only one who can steer France through this global economic crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHANTING)

BEARDSLEY: As the crowd chanted Sarkozy president, everyone knew the real battle was yet to come. Never has an incumbent president placed second in the first round and gone on to win. Polls give Hollande a 10-point lead over Sarkozy in the second round. Turnout today was huge, near 80 percent. Polling stations like this elementary school in Paris' 15th arrondissement were crowded. Sarkozy has been blamed for the economy, and many voters here said they didn't like his aggressive personal style. 18-year-old Pierre LeLouche says it's time for a change.

PIERRE LELOUCHE: I think that for my future, Francois Hollande will be better than Nicolas Sarkozy. His program about jobs for young people is very, very interesting.

BEARDSLEY: Aside from youth jobs, Hollande says he'll create jobs for teachers. The socialist candidate says neither France nor Europe can survive the crisis through austerity measures alone. Sarkozy has warned that Hollande's public spending will worsen French finances and the European debt crisis.

The big surprise tonight was a strong third place showing by far right candidate Marine Le Pen, with roughly 20 percent of the vote.

MARINE LE PEN: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: An ebullient Le Pen spoke to a throng of reporters at her election night party in northern France. She got more votes than expected, as she played to the fears of working-class France - fears about jobs, immigration and the elites in Paris who don't understand them. There has been bad blood between Le Pen and Sarkozy. Analysts say Sarkozy's chances now lie in how those Le Pen voters will cast their ballots two weeks from now. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

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