Hollande beats Sarko in French first round

FRENCH Socialist François Hollande won the first round of a tight presidential election yesterday, beating incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy into second place.

But his success was overshadowed by a huge surge in support for the National Front, the extreme nationalist party led by Marine Le Pen.

Le Pen – daughter of the party’s previous leader – won 18 per cent of the vote on an 80 per cent turnout. The result put her in third place after Hollande, who won 28 per cent, and Sarkozy, who took 27 per cent. Communist party leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon came a distant fourth with 11 per cent.

It means that Le Pen’s voters could now be kingmakers in a tight final round contest between the two front-runners. Observers said that while Mélenchon’s left-wing voters could well throw their weight behind Hollande, those supporting Le Pen are unlikely to vote for the centre-right and establishment candidate Sarkozy, making it too close to call.

In a fiery speech to supporters, Le Pen said last night: “We rode a dark blue wave that came to upset the system today… we will bring about this great upheaval.” She called the result “the start of a vast gathering of right-wing patriots”. The result tops the National Front’s previous peak in support in 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen came second in the presidential vote with 17 per cent.

Among the policies Marine Le Pen advocates are withdrawal from the euro, a clamp-down on immigration, tariffs and laws to favour French goods and workers, and price ceilings on fuel and basic foodstuffs.

Hollande said of Le Pen’s success: “What is wracking our country?... We need to redirect Europe on the path to growth and jobs.”

The result sets the stage for two weeks of uncertainty until the final round. Analysts had been predicting a win for Hollande, but say the race has now been thrown open.

Sarkozy’s defeat would be a blow for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has relied on broad support from him in her handling of the euro crisis. By contrast, Hollande has spoken out in favour of a more activist European Central Bank, fiscal stimulus over austerity and renegotiation of the Eurozone fiscal pact.

Sarkozy last night tried to boost his chances by challenging the more inexperienced Hollande to three TV debates instead of the usual two.