Nicolas Sarkozy's hopes of securing a second term as French president evaporated last night as polls closed in yesterday's first-round election.
Socialist candidate Francois Hollande (57) came first in the first of the two-round elections on 28pc-29pc of the vote, according to estimates from ballot samples, ahead of Mr Sarkozy, the conservative incumbent, on 25pc-27pc.
A victory in the May 6 runoff would make Mr Hollande France's first Socialist leader to be elected since Francois Mitterrand in 1988.
Confounding predictions of high abstention records, around 80pc of France's 44.5 million-strong electorate turned out to vote for 10 candidates, with only the top two going through to a second-round runoff on May 6.
The preliminary results were a significant blow to Mr Sarkozy, who had banked on finishing first in round one to create enough momentum to clinch the runoff. Polls consistently suggest Mr Hollande will win that final clash by at least 10 percentage points.
Despite enacting significant reforms in his five-year mandate, Mr Sarkozy has struggled to fight unemployment -- now at a record 10 million.
He is perceived as having been too generous to the France's wealthiest individuals.
Above all, many voters have not forgiven the man for his brash and showy style, particularly at the start of this presidency. A recent poll made him the most unpopular president of France' Fifth republic, created in 1958.
He had pinned his first round strategy on gunning for the National Front vote by pledging to crack down on insecurity, halve immigration and better protect French borders -- even threatening to suspend France's membership of the open-border Schengen treaty unless other countries tightened theirs.
The tactic helped him secure victory in 2007. But this time it clearly failed, as Marine Le Pen was on course for a spectacularly strong showing in yesterday's vote, finishing in third place on 18-20pc. The result was higher than her father ever reached, even when he shocked France by reaching the second round of presidential elections in 2002 -- going on to lose to Jacques Chirac.
She did not reach the final round, but the result has vindicated her drive to tone down the far-Right party her father founded, and has turned the Front National (FN) into a more formidable political force.
At stake was her entire campaign to rejuvenate and "de-demonise" the party she took over last year.
Still fiercely anti-immigrant, she insists the FN is not racist but simply a "patriotic" party similar to Britain's UKIP and its "opposition to the totalitarian character of the EU and its desire to remove people's sovereignty".
French identity is being sapped by waves of immigrants and an "aristocratic" European elite, she claims.
In particular, she warns of the Islamisation of French society, pointing to Toulouse gunman Mohamed Merah as a sign of the rising Islamist peril.
Ms Le Pen began the campaign focusing on the economy but when the French were less than convinced by her plan to ditch the euro, she returned to the party "fundamentals" of immigration and security.
More than half of FN voters must now vote for Mr Sarkozy if he is to stand a chance of beating Mr Hollande, but Ms Le Pen has warned her supporters not to vote for a man "who's already history".
"I think Sarkozy is finished," said Mr Le Pen last night.
His daughter is banking on the president's UMP party imploding and then forging alliances with former members in parliamentary elections in June under a "Marine Blue Rally" banner. Currently, the FN has no seats in the National Assembly.
Centrist candidate Francois Bayrou, the "third man" of the 2007 campaign, failed to break the expected 10pc mark. His electorate is still crucial for Mr Sarkozy, however.
Mr Sarkozy broke one record last night as the first post-war French president seeking re-election not to come top in the first round, and now faces an uphill struggle to avoid becoming the first French leader not to win a second term in more than 30 years.
But his camp put a brave face on the results insisting that the battle was far from over. "The message from the French, which we heard loud and clear, was that this was a vote in a time of crisis," said Jean-Francois Cope, leader of Mr Sarkozy's UMP party.
"From tomorrow morning, it will no longer be the case of nine candidates against Nicolas Sarkozy, but we will be one-to-one: Nicolas Sarkozy against Francois Hollande," he said.
The prospect of Mr Hollande taking the reins of the world's fifth largest economy has meanwhile sent jitters round the City of London, amid concerns he will relax efforts to cut French debt and deficit and shave its bloated state sector.
Traders have expressed concern he may face pressure to go beyond his centre-left programme if a nascent hard-Left makes gains in June parliamentary elections, possibly even holding the balance of power.
However, those fears were partially assuaged last night as the Communist-backed Left Front candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon, fared worse than expected, winning from 10.5pc and 13pc of the vote.
An admirer of Hugo Chavez and whose fiery speeches held tens of thousands transfixed in several mass open-air rallies, Mr Melenchon has been the surprise star of this election and was at one stage polled above Ms Le Pen.
A Hollande victory could significantly altering Europe's political landscape, as Mr Hollande has threatened not to ratify a treaty on budget austerity for the eurozone signed by 25 states but not Britain. He insists the fiscal pact include a chapter on economic growth, not just cost-cutting. Mr Hollande's aides insist that Spain, Italy, Austria and the Netherlands support his plan, among others. (© Daily Telegraph, London)