François Hollande has moved a step closer to becoming the first Socialist president of France in a generation by beating the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy, in the first round of elections for the Elysée. But the surprisingly high vote for the extreme-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, boosted the overall figures for the right and meant that the final runoff vote on 6 May remains on a knife-edge. Partial results from the beginning of the count showed Hollande – a former Socialist party leader, rural MP and self-styled Mr Normal – with a clear lead at more than 28%, compared with Sarkozy on about 26%. Hollande’s is one of the left’s best ever results and will raise momentum for next month’s final run-off. The Socialist party is seeking to return to the presidency for the first time since François Mitterrand’s re-election in 1988. But Sarkozy’s total will be seen as a personal failure. It is the first time an outgoing president has failed to win a first-round vote in the past 50 years and makes it harder for Sarkozy to regain momentum. The final runoff vote between Hollande and Sarkozy now depends on a delicate balance of how France’s total of rightwing and leftwing voters line up.
A key victory of the night was for the Front National’s Le Pen, who came third with almost 20% of the vote, easily beating her father Jean-Marie’s record success in 2002, and placing herself firmly at the heart of rightwing politics in France. The lawyer and twice-divorced mother of three had styled herself as the modern face of her party, trying to strip it of unsavoury overtones after her father’s convictions for describing the Holocaust as a detail of history. She had initially stressed economic issues, calling for France to leave the euro, but in recent days returned to her hard-right stance on curbing immigration. At her final rally in Paris, supporters had shouted “This is our home, our country!”