Sarkozy loses first round to Hollande
Socialist champion Francois Hollande stamped his authority on the French presidential race Sunday, winning the first round of polling and setting up a May 6 run-off with incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy.
Hollande won between 28 and 29 percent of the vote in the first round, to Sarkozy's 25.5 to 27, according to estimates compiled from ballot samples by several polling agencies and obtained by AFP from multiple sources.
But the surprise package was the far-right anti-immigrant candidate Marine Le Pen, who won between 18 and 20 percent -- her National Front party's best showing which complicated forecasts for the second round.
Sarkozy is the only incumbent French president to lose a first round-vote in modern French history and opponents of all stripes queued up to pronounce his political obituary in live broadcasts and speeches to supporters.
"The exceptional score of Francois Hollande brings hope for change," said senior Socialist campaign official Manuel Valls, branding Sarkozy's second place finish a "massive rejection."
Marine Le Pen's father, National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, refused to say who he would vote for in the second round now that his daughter has been eliminated, but added: "I think Sarkozy is finished."
Sarkozy's camp put a brave face on the defeat, insisting that with the votes of the Le Pen camp and that of centrist Francois Bayrou the right had not had a bad night and that Sarkozy would bounce back before May 6.
Turnout was high at at least 80 percent: down on the 84 percent turnout of 2007 but up significantly on the 72 percent of 2002 and belying fears that a low-key campaign would be capped by mass abstention.
The left has not won a presidential election in a quarter of a century, but with France mired in low growth and rising joblessness, opinion polls had long predicted that the left would beat the right-wing incumbent.
Hollande says Sarkozy has trapped France in a downward spiral of austerity and job losses, while Sarkozy says his rival is inexperienced and weak-willed and would spark financial panic through reckless spending pledges.
The eurozone debt crisis and France's sluggish growth and high unemployment have hung over the campaign, with Sarkozy struggling to defend his record and Hollande unable to credibly promise spending increases.
Opinion polls and campaigning were banned from midnight on Friday, and will now resume on Monday in the build-up to the May 6 run-off, which Hollande has hitherto been predicted to win by around 55 percent to 45.