Hollande, Sarkozy heading for runoff in France presidential vote

Socialist challenger Francois Hollande and incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy will advance to a runoff presidential election after an initial round of balloting Sunday, but a far-right candidate shocked the political establishment by running a strong third.

Early returns released after polls closed showed Hollande with about 28% of the vote to Sarkozy’s 26%, a margin consistent with pre-election polls. Eight other candidates trailed.

The biggest surprise was the strong showing of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, who received about 20%. That would be the strongest electoral showing her party has ever made — about double the percentage her father Jean-Marie Le Pen received in 2007.

Marine Le Pen knocked left-wing firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon into fourth place, becoming the kingmaker in the May 6 runoff between Hollande and Sarkozy. 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.

At Socialist Party headquarters, the atmosphere had been one of tense optimism as supporters waited for the results, with a crowd of young Hollande supporters gathered outside awaiting the news.

Former Socialist Culture Minister Jack Lang called for restraint. “We must not consider that it’s already won. The battle will be difficult. It’s when you believe it’s in the bag that you end up losing,” he said.

Early indications suggested that about 80% of the electorate turned out.