MARSEILLE, FRANCE // François Hollande took an important step towards becoming France's first socialist president for 17 years last night after narrowly defeating Nicolas Sarkozy in round one of the race to the Elysée palace.
With polling stations closed and a third of the vote counted, official results released late last night showed Mr Hollande with 27.5 per cent of votes, with Mr Sarkozy getting 26.6 per cent.
Earlier figures, all putting the socialist ahead, were revealed by news outlets in France's neighbouring countries, notably Belgium and Switzerland. They were widely circulated on social networking sites in defiance of attempts by the French authorities to stop information being published while voting continued.
If the preliminary indications are confirmed, it gives Mr Hollande a moral lift before the decisive second round of the elections on May 6. A slim first-round lead reflects most campaign opinion polls, and all put him comfortably ahead of the conservative Mr Sarkozy in second-round intentions.
In the fight for third place, the far-right Marine Le Pen appears to have ended ahead of the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, with results putting her at an unexpectedly high 19.9 per cent.
What happens to those votes, and the 10 per cent said to be backing the centrist François Bayrou, will decide who wins on May 6.
Most observers indicate Mr Hollande will be by far the biggest beneficiary. Mr Sarkozy needed a first-round victory but will take some consolation from how close he was to catching up from what had seemed a hopeless situation before campaigning began.
Mr Sarkozy still faces a major challenge to persuade even Ms Le Pen's supporters to transfer their allegiance to him.
Voting was brisk in most areas, especially in Paris. Despite predictions of massive abstention after a lacklustre campaign with neither front-runner making a striking impression, about 80 per cent of the 43 million eligible electors were said to have cast votes.
This was slightly lower than the rate when Mr Sarkozy won the first round in 2007, but much bigger than in the two previous presidential elections.
Disillusioned with the past and apprehensive about the future, electors had a choice of 10 candidates ranging across the political spectrum.
The presidential elections will be followed in June by another nationwide poll to decide who has power in the French parliament. Mr Hollande's Socialist Party is expected, based on current voting intentions, to seize legislative power from Mr Sarkozy's Gaullist UMP party.
Despite being ranked one of the world's top economies and Europe's biggest after Germany, France has serious financial problems. Its total public debt had reached €1,689 billion (Dh8.2bn) or 85 per cent of gross national product (GDP) by the third quarter of last year. Unemployment is high and wages are stagnant.
The lower paid and young people were drawn in small but significant numbers to the solutions offered by politicians far to the left of Mr Hollande. The vibrant campaign of Mr Mélenchon, the main far-left candidate, who counts communists among supporters of his Left Front alliance, led conservative critics to suggest that Mr Hollande, as president, would be his hostage.
On the right, concern about immigration and crime translates into sizeable minority backing for the far-right nationalism of Ms Le Pen's Front National party with its shrill rhetoric against immigration and the "Islamification" of France.
Ms Le Pen has fought hard for the "de-demonisation'' of her party, trying to move forward from the days when many members were assumed to hold Nazi or fascist sympathies.
But after the shootings in Toulouse and Montauban, when a French-Algerian petty criminal, Mohamed Merah, shot dead three Jewish children, one of their teachers and three soldiers, she asked: "How many Merahs are in the boats and planes that arrive here each day full of immigrants?" When it was pointed out that Merah was French, she retorted: "And if I'd been in power, he wouldn't have been, with all his criminal convictions."
In his efforts to prevent voters from his moderate right rallying to Ms Le Pen's simplistic message, Mr Sarkozy pledged a tougher line. He said there were "too many foreigners" in France and threatened to suspend participation in the Schengen passport-free zone if other countries do not act more rigorously to stop immigrants arriving from outside Europe.
Whoever runs France for the next five years may find room for economic manoeuvres severely restricted by the eurozone crisis, where bailouts for the calamitous Greek economy have switched attention to Spain and other weakened nations.
Sarkozy allies sought to portray the outgoing leader as the only man strong enough to lead France out of its economic malaise. He has reduced the annual deficit to 5.2 per cent, slightly better than expected, and says he will reach his 3 per cent target by 2016, a year earlier than pledged by Mr Hollande.