8 pm has just passed in France, and all the polls are now closed, which means official preliminary data is now allowed - the first results from IPSOS are in, and are as follows:
- Francois Hollande: 28.4% (28.8% latest) - with victory virtually assured in the runoff round on May 6, it is now Hollande's election to lose. Could he? Yes - read here how Sarkozy can still catch up per DB.
- Nicholas Sarkozy: 25.5% (26.1% latest) - make the runoff round
- Marine Le Pen: 20.0% (18.5% latest) - extreme right: much better than expected as nationalism is back with a bang.
- Jean-Luc Melenchon: 11.7% - extreme left: best communist showing since 1981 yet weaker than expected.
- Francois Bayrou: 8.5%
- Eva Joly: 2.0%
- the others are irrelevant.
Big win for Hollande but even more stunning victory for extreme right winger Le Pen, which only proves that nationalism is back in Europe with a vengeance.
Far-rightist Marine Le Pen threw France's presidential race wide open on Sunday by scoring nearly 20 percent in the first round - votes that may determine the runoff between Socialist favourite Francois Hollande and conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Hollande led Sarkozy by about 29 to 26 percent in reliable computer projections broadcast after polling stations closed, and the two will meet in a head-to-head decider on May 6.
But Le Pen's record score of 18-20 percent was the sensation of the night, beating her father's 2002 result and outpolling hard leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon, in fourth place on 11 percent. Centrist Francois Bayrou finished fifth on less than 10 percent.
Le Pen, who took over the anti-immigration National Front in early 2011, wants jobs reserved for French nationals at a time when jobless claims are at a 12-year high. She also advocates abandoning the euro currency and restoring monetary policy to Paris.
Her score reflected a surge in anti-establishment populist parties in many euro zone countries from Amsterdam to Athens as austerity and the debt crisis bite.
Voter surveys show about half of her supporters would back Sarkozy in a second round and perhaps one fifth would vote for Hollande, making her a potential kingmaker in the runoff.
Jean-Marie Le Pen's 16.9 percent score in the 2002 first round caused a political earthquake, knocking then Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin out of the runoff and forcing left-wing voters to rally behind conservative Jacques Chirac.
Sarkozy, 57, has painted himself as the safest pair of hands to lead France and the euro zone in turbulent times, but Sunday's vote appeared to be a strong rejection of his flashy style as well as his economic record.
If Hollande wins on May 6, joining a small minority of left-wing governments in Europe, he has promised to lead a push for a bigger focus on growth in the euro zone, mainly by adding pro-growth clauses to a European budget discipline treaty.
The prospect of a renegotiation of the pact is causing some concern in financial markets, as is Hollande's focus on tax rises over austerity at a time when sluggish growth is threatening France's ability to meet deficit-cutting goals.