Socialist candidate Francois Hollande has nosed ahead in the French presidential election winning 28.6 per cent of the 98 per cent of the votes counted in the first round. President Nicolas Sarkozy is just behind with 27.1 per cent in an election that saw a heavy voter turnout.
According to the BBC, this is the first time an incumbent president has lost the first round since the republic was formed in 1958. The second round will be held on May 6.
"Tonight I become the candidate of all the forces who want to turn one page and turn over another," Hollande was quoted as saying by Sky News.
Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front was in the third spot with 18.1 per cent of the votes. As a reflection of her growing clout, she was quoted as saying by Reuters: "The battle of France has only just begun." According to the agency, the 43-year-old daughter of former paratrooper declared: "We are now the only real opposition."
According to the Telegraph, Le Pen said that her party has "exploded the monopoly of two [main] parties of banks, finance, of multinationals, of resignations and abandonment, and carried higher than ever before the hopes of national ideas."
Analysts quoted by news agencies say Sarkozy is now fighting with his back to the wall and will have to woo supporters of the National Front which has reportedly secured the votes of many youngsters, workers and anti-immigrants.
The election has been dominated by the economic crisis and unemployment. Sarkozy conceded that jobs and immigration were indeed worrying factors. Analysts say that the first round verdict reflects the deepening disenchantment in the eurozone over loss of jobs, bailout woes and budget deficits.
Hollande is also predicted to win the second run-off as well. One survey by French public television and the Le Monde newspaper forecasts that he will get 54 per cent of the votes compared to 46 per cent by Sarkozy.
According to the Guardian, the socialists are trying to win back the presidency for the first since François Mitterrand's re-election in 1988.
Sarkozy has challenged Hollande to three television debates over the next fortnight, when the poll battle is expected to turn fiercer.