PARIS — French voters punished President Nicolas Sarkozy in the first round of elections Sunday, giving his Socialist opponent a slim lead in a contest thrown open with a strong showing by far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.
In early official results, Socialist Francois Hollande won 27.6 percent of the vote to Mr. Sarkozy 26.6 percent in what has become Europe's most-watched and most-hotly contested race. The two front-runners traded the top place in the first-round polls for several months and were polling about equal last week.
Mr. Hollande has been the consistent favorite to take the presidency in the runoff May 6.
However the National Front's Miss Le Pen, who won 19.9 percent of the vote after running a strong anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim campaign, will now be kingmaker. Polls show that about half of her supporters could back Mr. Sarkozy in the runoff.
"Marine is here to stay," National Front spokesman Florian Philippot said. "She is a force for the future."
Analysts credited Miss Le Pen's strong showing to alienation and frustration that has led to almost a third of voters choosing the far-right and far-left candidates, analysts said. Left Front candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon won 10 percent to 13 percent, according to early results. The rest of the vote was split among six minor candidates.
"I'm thinking about the future, for my unborn daughter and for my elder daughter, so that things move again, change," said Virginie Betant, seven months pregnant and celebrating her 35th birthday Sunday as she voted in Paris.
She said she voted against Mr. Sarkozy.
"Currently, I'm really disappointed by what's happening in France on the social and political levels. So I have voted for change," she said.
About 70 percent of France's almost 45 million voters cast a ballot, according to early official results, less than the 84 percent in the last presidential election in 2007.
Polls showed 66 percent of French voters expressed interest in the election compared to 76 percent in April 2007.
"This election campaign is considered mediocre," said Frederic Micheau of the IFOP polling agency. "It has disappointed the electorate."
Mr. Hollande is a bland and uninspiring candidate. Mr. Sarkozy has infuriated many of his former supporters with his brash style, as the country faces an economic downturn and belt-tightening.
For the past few months, the campaign has focused on immigration, integration and Islam, especially after the killing of seven people by a self-proclaimed jihadist in Toulouse in March.
Polls also showed that voters were most concerned about the economy, especially declining purchasing power and unemployment.
When Mr. Sarkozy won office in 2007, he pledged to implement reform and make the economy more competitive. After a few initiatives, notably raising France's retirement age by two years to 62, the reforms failed to materialize.
France, the Eurozone's second-largest economy, currently has an unemployment rate of about 10 percent and a public debt of close to 90 percent of gross domestic product.
Mr. Hollande wants to raise the minimum wage, increase taxes on high earners and focus on growth, not just austerity measures.
That has worried European leaders, especially German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She and Mr. Sarkozy crafted a new treaty late last year that implements closer financial discipline on the 17 countries that use the euro. Together, they have pushed for wider and deeper austerity measures to ease Europe's debt crisis.
Voters backing fringe candidates said they hoped to influence the front-runners.
"I [wanted] Jean-Luc Melenchon to score high so that this will force the likely president, Francois Hollande, to keep his policies on the left as much as possible," said Florian Samson, who came to vote in a northwestern Paris district with his wife and baby daughter.
• Jabeen Bhatti contributed to this report from Berlin.
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