François Hollande has moved a step closer to becoming the first Socialist president of France in a generation by beating the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy, in the first round of elections.
But the surprisingly high vote for the extreme-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, boosted the overall figures for the right and meant that the final runoff vote on 6 May remains on a knife edge.
Partial results showed Hollande – a former Socialist party leader, rural MP and self-styled Mr Normal – with a clear lead at more than 28%, compared with Sarkozy on 27%. It is one of the left's best ever results and will raise momentum for next month's final runoff where only the two candidates will compete against each other. The Socialist party is seeking to return to the presidency for the first time since François Mitterrand's re-election in 1988.Sarkozy's total will be seen as a personal failure. It is the first time an outgoing president has failed to win a first-round vote in the past 50 years and makes it harder for Sarkozy to regain momentum. The final vote between Hollande and Sarkozy now depends on a delicate balance of how France's total of rightwing and leftwing voters line up.
Hollande told cheering supporters in his rural fiefdom of Corrèze in south-west France that he was best-placed to lead France towards change, saying the vote marked a “rejection” of Sarkozy and a "sanction" against his five years in office. He said France clearly wanted to "close one page and open another". He reiterated his opposition to austerity alone as the only way out of Europe's crisis: "My final duty, and I know I'm being watched from beyond our borders, is to put Europe back on the path of growth and employment."
A key victory of the night was for the Front National's Le Pen, who came third with around 18% of the vote, beating her father Jean-Marie's record success in 2002, and placing herself firmly at the heart of rightwing politics in France. She said "the battle of France has begun" and "nothing will be the same again".
The lawyer and twice-divorced mother of three had presented herself as the modern face of her party, trying to strip it of unsavoury overtones after her father's convictions for saying the Nazi occupation of France was not "particularly inhumane".