Socialist Francois Hollande and conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy are heading for a runoff election in their race for France's presidency, according to partial official results in a vote that could alter the European political and economic landscape.
French voters defied expectations and handed a surprisingly strong third-place showing to far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, who has run on an anti-immigrant platform aimed largely at Muslims. That could boost her influence on the French political scene, hand her party seats in parliament and affect relations with minorities.
With 75 percent of the vote counted, Hollande had 27.9 percent of ballots cast and Sarkozy 26.7 percent, according to figures released by the Interior Ministry after final polls closed. Le Pen was in third with 19.2 percent of the vote so far. In fourth place was leftist firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon with 10.8 percent, followed by centrist Francois Bayrou with 9.2 percent and five other candidates with minimal support.
Turnout was also surprisingly high, projected by polling agencies at about 80 percent, despite concern that a campaign lacking a single overarching theme had failed to inspire voters.
Hollande, a 57-year-old who has worried investors with his pledges to boost government spending, pledged 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 another," Hollande, with a confidence and stately air he has often lacked during the campaign, told an exuberant crowd in his hometown of Tulle in southern France.
Sarkozy said he recognized voters' concerns about jobs and immigration, and "the concern of our compatriots to preserve their way of life," he told supporters at his campaign headquarters in Paris' Left Bank.
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.
The top two candidates head to a runoff May 6.
Sarkozy supporter Djamila Semoudi said the president's showing in the first round was high enough.
"I feel it's good for Nicolas now," Semoudi said. "Because the first estimations here is good, and it's near Hollande."
Semoudi said Sarkozy's total means he can win against Hollande in the second round. Her friend Miluda Quessette agrees.
"I'm persuaded that he will win the second round now," she said in French. "No doubt. He's the only one who can steer france through this world economic crisis."
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 — reached out to her voters after Sunday's result.
"We also have to think of those who are angry," because they 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 Associated Press about Le Pen's share of the vote, 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 NS [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, predicting a first-round surprise, said in an interview last week with the AP that she would consider it a victory if she matched the first-round score of her father, National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, 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.
Far leftist Melenchon said, "our people appear well determined to turn the page of Nicolas Sarkozy."
The campaign has been marked by frustration with the incumbent and the rise of the extremes.
Sarkozy said he wants to hold three debates before the runoff, one on economic affairs, one on social affairs, and one on international affairs.
"This is an election that will weigh on the future of Europe. That's why many people are watching us," said Hollande after voting. "They're wondering not so much what the winner's name will be, but especially what policies will follow."
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.
"I think that for my future, Francois Hollande will be better than Nicolas Sarkozy," said 18-year-old Pierre LeLouche. "I think his program about jobs for young people is very, very interesting."
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 as EU states such as Greece, Italy, Ireland and Spain work to wriggle their way out of crushing state debts.
Foreign policy has played barely 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.
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.
"I think most people are not satisfied with the last five years, people want change, especially in terms of job creation," said voter Eli Lazovsky, a 38-year-old hotel manager, after casting a ballot in a well-to-do Paris neighborhood off the Champs-Elysees.
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.
NPR's Eleanor Beardsley contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press