French incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy has made it to the second round of his country’s presidential election – but he was beaten in the first round of votes by Socialist rival Francois Hollande, according to early exit polls.
Mr Sarkozy won 26.6% of the votes, according to polls, while Mr Hollande took 27.5% of the votes.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen was projected to have taken 19.9% of the vote, giving her third place in the first round of the election.
Marine Le Pen, centre, may be the kingmaker in the vote between Sarkozy and Hollande
Media reports termed Ms Le Pen’s surge in numbers “surprising”. “Marine Le Pen’s Front National has odious racist and anti-Semitic antecedents and yet one in five voters backed the party today,” British freelance journalist Peter Allen, based in Paris, tweeted.
Her strong showing throws the presidential race wide open, potentially making her the kingmaker as her supporters could determine the runoff between Mr Sarkozy and Mr Hollande.
Earlier, Mr Sarkozy votes with wife Carla Bruni. He came second in the first round
It also sends a definitive message that voters in France are disillusioned with the mainstream parties.
Mr Sarkozy and Mr Hollande will go face to face in second round voting in one of France’s tightest presidential races since the system was adopted in 1958.
Opinion polls on Friday gave five candidates double-digit support: the current President Sarkozy, the Socialist Party’s Hollande, the National Front’s Le Pen, Jean-Luc Melenchon of the Left Front and Democratic Movement leader Francois Bayrou.
Francois Hollande and companion Valerie Trierweiler walk around Tulle during the voting
Also vying for votes were Europe Ecology’s Eva Joly, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan who formed Arise the Republic, Nathalie Arthaud representing Workers’ Struggle, Philippe Poutou for the New Anti-Capitalist Party and Jacques Cheminade representing Solidarity and Progress.
Despite the tight race, observers consider this to be a lacklustre campaign, which at times has descended into personal acrimony between the two frontrunners.
French citizens vote in Marseille
Mr Sarkozy’s personal popularity was dented by his reputation as a “bling” president forcing the country to accept austerity.
While on the left, many were disenchanted with the low-key campaign fought by Mr Hollande, who wants to bring in a 75% income tax level for those earning over a million euros a year, create 60,000 new teachers’ jobs and regulate the financial industry.
That means support has moved to the so-called “conviction” parties on the far right and far left.
The result is that the time between this election and the run-off on May 6 will be spent political horse-trading, when the two front-runners try to mop up the support of those knocked out of the race.
Polls suggest the Socialist leader would triumph in the run-off, which would create concern in Europe.
He disagrees with core elements of the fiscal compact designed to bring financial stability to the eurozone, which Mr Sarkozy helped create with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.