Conservative Nicolas Sarkozy has seized a strong lead over Socialist Segolene Royal in the first round of France's presidential election and must now woo centrist voters if he is to win the run-off vote on May 6.
With almost all ballots in Sunday's voting counted, Sarkozy had 31.1 per cent, Royal 25.8 per cent, centrist Francois Bayrou 18.5 per cent and far-right head Jean-Marie Le Pen 10.5 per cent.
Four opinion polls late on Sunday showed Sarkozy, a former interior minister, looked set to win the run-off and dash Royal's dream of becoming France's first female president.
Jean-Louis Borloo, the popular labor minister who is backing Sarkozy, offered one option to win centrist backing.
"If Nicolas Sarkozy were president, I would think it would be necessary, vital, fortuitous that there be UDF members massively present in the government," Borloo told French radio, quickly adding it was up to Sarkozy and Bayrou to decide this.
Sarkozy, aiming to soften the "tough cop" image that helped him siphon votes from the far right, struck a conciliatory tone before ecstatic party faithful soon after the polls closed.
Reaching out to the same centrist voters now up for grabs, Royal sought to stoke an undercurrent of concern about Sarkozy by saying she refused "to cultivate fear" and opposed "a France dominated by the law of the strongest or most brutal".
"Among Francois Bayrou's supporters there were men and women who wanted change, who even believed they would beat Sarkozy by voting for Bayrou," Francois Hollande, Socialist leader and Royal's partner, told France 2 television.
Apart from the two-horse campaign over the next two weeks between Sarkozy and Royal, who are due to hold a televised debate on May 2, all eyes will be on centrist leader Bayrou to see if he advises his voters to back either candidate.
"Bayrou will be the most sought-after politician in the next two weeks," Europe 1 radio said. But Bayrou's campaign director, Marielle de Sarnez, told Le Parisien newspaper: "One thing is sure: we are not for sale!"
Both candidates were due on the campaign trail on Monday, with Sarkozy addressing a rally in the eastern city of Dijon and Royal traveling to Valence in southern France.
A massive turnout on Sunday re-established the left-right split in France, five years after Le Pen shocked the country by coming second to President Jacques Chirac.
Sarkozy cannot let up now even after deflating the far-right vote. Leading the field in the first round does not guarantee ultimate success. Twice in the last five elections, in 1974 and 1995, the first-round winner lost the run-off.
But Royal, dogged by questions about her competence after campaign gaffes, also faces stiff challenges.
The combined score for leftist candidates on Sunday was little more than 35 per cent, amid signs that France has shifted distinctly to the right.
The election marks a generational shift for France, with conservative Chirac, 74, retiring after 12 years in power. Both Sarkozy and Royal are in their early 50s.
Whoever replaces Chirac will inherit a fractured country that has the highest unemployment rate of any major industrial power and multi-ethnic suburbs simmering with discontent.
Sarkozy wants the French to work harder and pay less tax, and is promising swift reforms to curb union powers, slim government and toughen sentencing for repeat offenders.
Royal, a regional leader who has held only junior government posts, has promised to raise the minimum wage, create 500,000 jobs for young workers and wants to reward companies that innovate and invest in France.