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Le Pen’s strong showing handed her a chance to weigh in on French politics with her anti-immigration platform that targets France’s millions of Muslims.

“The strength of the populist extreme right shows that there is all over Europe a rise of populism as a result of the economic crisis,” said political analyst Dominique Moisi.

Final results from the Interior Ministry showed Hollande won 28.6 percent of the vote and Sarkozy 27.2 percent. Le Pen was in third with 17.9 percent. In fourth place was leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon with 11.1 percent, followed by centrist Francois Bayrou with 9.1 percent and five other candidates with minimal support.

Hollande, a 57-year-old whose victory worried financial markets Monday because of his pledges to boost government spending, vowed to cut France’s huge debts, boost growth and unite the French after Sarkozy’s divisive first term.

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.

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 now on to sway Le Pen’s voters. Le Pen herself told AP last week that she was not going to give instructions to her supporters.

While Sarkozy has borrowed some of Le Pen’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and campaign themes of national identity, the far-right leader has repeatedly criticized Sarkozy and says he is a has-been with no chance of returning to office.

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.

On Monday, German government spokesman Georg Streiter said that Merkel “continues to support President Sarkozy.” But he added that “the chancellor will work well and outstandingly together with any elected French president.”

At a time when voters across Europe have ousted incumbents amid economic woes, an 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.

Sarah DiLorenzo, Elaine Ganley, Jonathan Shenfield in Paris, and Masha Macpherson in Tulle contributed to this report.