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.
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