Laurent Cipriani, Associated Press
PARIS — 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.
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 AP about Le pen's score, 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 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 Associated Press 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."
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