Europe's simmering mood of anti-establishment anger seemed to erupt into French politics as voters turned their backs on conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy with a first-round presidential election result that was polarized between strong centre-left support and a resurgent extreme right that received a record fifth of the vote.
In a rare exception to the solid wall of conservative blue that covers much of Europe's political map, Socialist Party leader François Hollande captured 28.6 per cent of the vote, ahead of Mr. Sarkozy's 27.2 per cent, according to final results from the Interior Ministry. Even these modest returns required both major candidates to deliver messages of stark anti-Europe and anti-capitalist anger, often in a reversal of their traditional more moderate positions, just in order to keep up with the more extreme parties.
The two will face each other in a May 6 runoff vote, and the next two weeks could prove a pitched battle to capture votes from an angry two-fifths of the electorate who, apparently alarmed by globalization, immigration and the collapse of the euro, cast its lot with the parties on the fringes.
A good part of France's anger was directed at Mr. Sarkozy himself, whose air of haughty luxury, un-presidential emotional outbursts and close relations with his German counterpart have spurred a phenomenon known as l'anti-sarkozysme. Yet there seemed to be a wider anger as well, aimed at the entire economic and political system.
The biggest shock of the evening was far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, whose National Front is hostile to religious minorities and opposed to immigration. Ms. Le Pen was in third with 17.9 percent, the best showing ever by the far right National Front party founded by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Though not enough to make her a final-round contender, that result means that a good part of the major candidates' activities in the next two weeks will be devoted to trying to win the support of her voters by appealing to their fears of economic and cultural insecurity.
Mr. Sarkozy seemed to acknowledge this Sunday night when he addressed his party, the Union for a Popular Movement, to explain the poor result. "Voters have expressed fear and anxiety in the face of a new world," he said, before using rhetoric that seemed to come from Ms. Le Pen's speeches. "We have to protect the French way of life," he said, framing immigration and globalization as threats.
Indeed, it sounded like an echo of the speech Ms. Le Pen gave at around the same time to a jubilant audience. "We are seeing French opinion changing," she declared, "returning to traditional French values that Marine Le Pen embodies."
The odds are good, but far from certain, that France's presidency will change on May 6 from right to left for the first time since Francois Mitterrand's 1981 victory. One projection on Sunday, by the polling firm Ipsos Mori and based on current voting intentions, shows Mr. Hollande beating Mr. Sarkozy by 54 per cent to 46 per cent.
But even Mr. Hollande is likely to be effected by the strong Le Pen showing – a large part of her success came from her appeal to working-class voters alienated by globalization, the same constituency Mr. Hollande tried to reach with his unusually left-wing campaign in which he railed at the market economy and promised to raise taxes on the wealthy and withdraw from European Union fiscal obligations.
Surveys show that the centre-right Mr. Sarkozy will pick up only half of Ms. Le Pen's supporters in the runoff, while a fifth of her voters intend to switch to Mr. Hollande. Some of her support may have come from people casting a protest vote against the establishment, but who would rather see a Socialist win than Mr. Sarkozy. But it's also fair to say that Mr. Hollande and Ms. Le Pen are part of the same phenomenon. They both campaigned against the established conventions of European politics, including the tight bond between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Mr. Sarkozy that had been at the root of a euro-crisis bailout pact built around fiscal austerity and limited growth. Ms. Merkel, perhaps unwisely, had sealed the "Merkozy" relationship by endorsing her French counterpart.
Both the extreme-right leader and the Socialist Party veteran were campaigning against that European status quo. Ms. Le Pen wanted to withdraw all but completely from the euro zone and the European Union, and Mr. Hollande wanted to renegotiate the European fiscal treaty so that it was built on growth and stimulus rather than austerity.
Mr. Hollande also will gain the lion's share of votes from far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who won 11 per cent of the vote after a charismatic and attention-grabbing campaign, and spent the weekend urging his followers to back Mr. Hollande in order to prevent a Sarkozy re-election.
"I call on you to come out on May 6 and beat Sarkozy without asking for anything in exchange. I urge you: don't drag your heels, mobilize as though it were me you were sending to victory in the presidential election," he told his backers. No such support for Mr. Sarkozy emerged from Ms. Le Pen.
With files from Associated Press