France's Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande acknowledges… (Thierry Zoccolan, AFP/Getty…)
PARIS — Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande and French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Sunday advanced to a presidential runoff election, as a far-right candidate surprised many observers with a strong third-place finish.
Hollande and Sarkozy will face each other in the May 6 runoff, according to preliminary results of Sunday's election, though the support received by candidate Marine Le Pen seemed to reflect deep disillusionment by many voters with the main political parties in France.
Le Pen, leader of the National Front party, had received just under 20% of the votes, the strongest showing her party has ever made, as ballots were still being counted late Sunday. Hollande had about 29% of the votes and Sarkozy about 27%.
The results were a blow for Sarkozy, who opinion polls show is the most unpopular French president to run for reelection. It was the first time a serving president had failed to win a first-round vote in 50 years. He faces an uphill struggle to capture Le Pen's supporters to defeat Hollande.
Recent polls have anticipated a double-digit lead for Hollande in a runoff with Sarkozy. A victory would make the 57-year-old Hollande, sometimes criticized for being bland, only the second Socialist leader in France's history. He supports controlling financial speculation, regulating banks and taxing the rich and big, profitable companies.
Hollande has pledged to renegotiate the deal Sarkozy struck with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to rein in budget deficits in European Union countries. He supports encouraging growth as opposed to austerity programs and proposes a 75% tax rate on personal earnings that exceed $1.3 million a year.
"Tonight I become the candidate of all the forces who want to turn one page and turn over another," Hollande told a crowd in Tulle in central France, according to the Associated Press.
Sarkozy, 57, of the Union for a Popular Movement party, has never shaken the image that as a conservative leader he was the "president of the rich."
He had said he would turn France away from its traditional partnership with Germany, remold the country along more Anglo-Saxon free-market lines and make it more dynamic and competitive. But the economic crisis resulted in rampant unemployment, a damaging public spending deficit and the loss of France's triple-A credit rating.
The government came up with two austerity plans: The first amounted to about $15.2 billion in tax increases and spending cuts, the second to about $26 billion, including reductions in health services and a higher retirement age.
Supporters say Sarkozy has shown strength in the face of economic turmoil.
The president reportedly said Sunday that he recognized "the concern of our compatriots to preserve their way of life."
Early indications suggested that about 80% of the electorate turned out for the first round of balloting, defying predictions of a high rate of abstention.
Le Pen, daughter of National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, performed even better than her father, who shocked France in 2002 when he reached the second-round vote with 17%.
She defied the pre-vote opinion polls to knock left-wing firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon into fourth place, becoming the kingmaker in the runoff. At least half of her voters are expected to support Sarkozy.
During a fiery campaign, Le Pen, a 43-year-old lawyer, relentlessly challenged the "established" candidates and in many ways defined the campaign landscape, forcing Sarkozy to veer to the right.
Afterward she said, "Whatever happens over the next two weeks, the battle for France has just begun."
"We have exploded the monopoly of the two [main] parties, of the banks, of finance, of multinationals, of resignation and abandonment, and we have carried higher than ever before the hopes of national ideas," she said.
At Socialist Party headquarters, the atmosphere had been one of tense optimism as supporters waited for the results, with a crowd of banner-waving young Hollande supporters gathered outside awaiting the news.
Later, Hollande said Le Pen's surprise score was a "new signal" reflecting popular anger and frustration, while Sarkozy's camp said it signified a "victory for the right."
Former Socialist Culture Minister Jack Lang called for restraint.
"We must not consider that it's already won. The battle will be difficult," Lang said. "It's when you believe it's in the bag that you end up losing."
Willsher is a special correspondent.