French President Nicolas Sarkozy will face socialist Francois Hollande in a runoff election for France's presidency, according to partial official results in Sunday’s vote.
The Associated Press reported that with 75 percent of the vote counted, Hollande had 27.9 percent of ballots cast and Sarkozy 26.7 percent, according to figures released by the Interior Ministry after final polls closed.
The report noted that French voters defied expectations and handed a surprisingly strong third-place showing to far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, who has run on an anti-immigrant platform aimed largely at Muslims. The results could boost her influence on the French political scene, hand her party seats in parliament and affect relations with minorities.
Le Pen was in third with 19.2 percent of the vote so far. In fourth place was leftist firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon with 10.8 percent, followed by centrist Francois Bayrou with 9.2 percent and five other candidates with minimal support.
Polling agencies projected that turnout was surprisingly high, at about 80 percent, despite concern that a campaign lacking a single overarching theme had failed to inspire voters.
Hollande, has pledged to cut France's huge debts, boost growth and unite the French after Sarkozy's divisive first term.
“Tonight I become the candidate of all the forces who want to turn one page and turn another,” Hollande was quoted by AP as having said in his hometown of Tulle in southern France.
Sarkozy, meanwhile, said he recognized voters' concerns about jobs and immigration, and “the concern of our compatriots to preserve their way of life,” he was quoted as having told supporters at his campaign headquarters in Paris' Left Bank.
The top two candidates head to a runoff May 6.