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Francois Hollande, a mild-mannered French Socialist, is heading into a presidential runoff election with the upper hand over incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy after winning the most votes in the first round of voting.
However, the nearly one in five voters who chose far right candidate Marine Le Pen may hold the key to victory in the decisive vote on May 6.
Hollande remains favorite to win the runoff after besting Sarkozy in the first round.
If Hollande wins the second round, he would become the first socialist president since 1995. His election could also alter Europe's political and economic landscape.
Both Hollande and Sarkozy were charging back into campaign mode Monday after a two-day pause to comply with election regulations that forbid campaigning from midnight Friday until 8 p.m. Sunday.
Sarkozy was headed to Tours in the Loire valley, while Hollande traveled to Quimper and Lorient in far-western Brittany.
Turnout was surprisingly high, at more than 80 percent, despite concern that a campaign focusing on nostalgia for a more protected past would fail to inspire voters.
In the campaign's biggest surprise, nearly one in five voters chose far right candidate Marine Le Pen instead, handing her a solid third place and a chance to weigh in on French politics with her anti-immigration platform that targets France's millions of Muslims.
With 96 percent of the vote counted, Hollande had 28.5 percent of the ballots cast and Sarkozy 27 percent, according to figures released by the Interior Ministry.
Le Pen was in third with 18.2 percent of the vote so far, the best showing ever by the far right National Front party founded by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen. In fourth place was leftist firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon with 11 percent, followed by centrist Francois Bayrou with 9.1 percent and five other candidates with minimal support.
Hollande, a 57-year-old who has worried financial markets with his pledges to boost government spending, vowed Sunday night 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 over another," Hollande told an exuberant crowd in his political fiefdom of Tulle in central France.
Sarkozy, speaking at his campaign headquarters on Paris' Left Bank, said he recognized voters' concerns about jobs and immigration, and "the concern of our compatriots to preserve their way of life."
Ten candidates faced off for Sunday's first round of voting, a referendum on Sarkozy at a time when many French voters are worried about high joblessness and weak economic prospects.
"Hollande should be happy. ... Sarkozy's objective was to beat him. It will be very difficult for Sarkozy now," said Damien Philippot of polling agency IFOP. "When you see the results it's clearly a vote of sanction for Nicolas Sarkozy."
Three French polls conducted Sunday evening as results came in predicted Hollande would win the May 6 runoff by 8 to 12 percentage points. Ipsos, CSA and IFOP said economic worries drove many voters.
Sarkozy is battling to avoid becoming France's first one-term president since Valery Giscard d'Estaing lost to Socialist Francois Mitterrand in 1981. Sarkozy has said he'll pull out of politics if he loses.
The race is on now to sway Le Pen's voters for the decisive second round. Le Pen herself told AP last week that she was not going to give instructions to her voters.
While Sarkozy has borrowed some of her anti-immigrant rhetoric and campaign themes of national identity, Le Pen has repeatedly criticized Sarkozy and says he is a has-been with no chance of returning to office.
The Socialist camp - not a natural ally for Le Pen supporters - reached out to her voters after Sunday's result.
"We also have to think of those who are angry," who feel forgotten and humiliated by Sarkozy's first term, Socialist Party chief Martine Aubry said.
Le Pen said in the interview last week with The Associated Press that she would consider it a victory if she matched the first-round score of her father in 2002. That year, he got nearly 16.8 percent of the vote and was propelled into the final round and a face-off with then-President Jacques Chirac.
Whatever happens to France's leadership will affect the rest of the 27-nation European Union. France was one of six countries that in the 1950s founded the predecessor of the EU, and is the eurozone's second-largest economy after Germany.
Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel - a tandem that some call "Merkozy" - have championed a treaty on budget austerity for the 17-nation eurozone. But Hollande wants the treaty to also address economic growth, not just cost-cutting.
Julien Vadrot, 18, in his last year in high school, said he voted for Sarkozy "because he seems the best in this crisis. For five years, he held the country together ... and kept the country standing better than the other (countries)" like Spain, Portugal or Italy, he said. "It's lost less than the other euro countries."
At a time when voters across Europe have ousted incumbents amid economic woes, a Hollande victory would tilt the continent's political balance to the left.
Hollande, who wants to tax high-income earners at 75 percent, has tapped into a fear of the free market that has always held more sway in France than almost anywhere in the West, and has enjoyed a resurgence in the era of Occupy Wall Street and anti-banker backlash.
Foreign policy has barely played a role in this campaign but will be a big part of the next president's job. Candidates of many stripes want to bring France's 3,600 troops home from the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, and Hollande has vowed a fast timetable: A pullout by the end of this year.
Sarkozy said he wants three debates before the May 6 runoff, on the economy, society and international affairs. But Hollande dismissed that, saying one debate, as had been previously planned, is enough.
"Because (Sarkozy) is in a very difficult situation he wants to change the rules. But you can't change the rules. When you are a bad student, you get bad grades, you cannot ask to change professors," Hollande said as he left Tulle late Sunday night for Paris.
Angela Charlton, Sarah DiLorenzo, Elaine Ganley, Jamey Keaten, Thomas Adamson, Cecile Brisson, Sylvie Corbet, Jonathan Shenfield in Paris, and Masha Macpherson in Tulle contributed to this report.
This program aired on April 23, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.
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