Hollande won between 28 and 30% of the vote in the first
round, to Sarkozy's 24 to 27.5, according to estimates compiled from ballot
samples by several polling agencies and obtained by AFP from multiple sources.
That made Sarkozy the only incumbent French president to
lose a first round-vote in the history of the Fifth Republic, which came into
being in 1958.
Officialresults were not to be made available until polls
closed in major urban centres at 8:00pm (1800 GMT), but the tendency was clear
and the mood at Sarkozy's campaign headquarters was resigned and sombre.
"It's a very good first round score. Dignity paid
off," said Socialist spokeswoman Aurelie Filippetti, welcoming Sunday's
result in the more upbeat venues of Hollande's party headquarters.
Ten candidates were in the race -- Hollande and Sarkozy
being trailed by far-right flag-bearer Marine Le Pen, hard-left firebrand
Jean-Luc Melenchon, veteran centrist Francois Bayrou and a handful of
Le Pen came third with between 17 and 20%, beating bitter
enemy Melenchon, who scored between 10.5 and 13%. Bayrou won between 8.7 and
10%, according to the estimates seen by AFP.
Turnout was high at at least 80%: down on the 84% turnout
of 2007 but up significantly on the 72% of 2002 and belying fears that a
low-key campaign would be capped by mass abstention.
The left has not won a presidential election in a quarter
of a century, but with France mired in low growth and rising joblessness,
opinion polls had long predicted that the left would beat the right-wing
Hollande says Sarkozy has trapped France in a downward
spiral of austerity and job losses, while Sarkozy says his rival is
inexperienced and weak-willed and would spark financial panic through reckless
The eurozone debt crisis and France's sluggish growth and
high unemployment have hung over the campaign, with Sarkozy struggling to
defend his record and Hollande unable to credibly promise spending increases.
"I have never missed a vote, but this time I feel
little enthusiasm for the election," said 62-year-old retired high school
teacher Isabelle Provost as she emerged into bright Paris sunshine after
casting her ballot.
"Economically there is little difference between the
two main candidates," she said, echoing the sentiment of many others of
the right and the left.
Hollande voted in his stronghold, the country town of
Tulle in the central Correze region, where he is the local member of parliament
and heads the regional council. He was warmly greeted by officials and voters
"I am attentive, engaged, but first of all
respectful," he told reporters.
"The day ahead will be a long one, this is an
Sarkozy and his former supermodel wife Carla Bruni cast
their ballots in Paris' plush 16th district, a stronghold of his right-wing UMP
Hollande was to make a speech in Tulle minutes after
polls close and official results estimates are announced on the prime-time 8:00
pm television news. Sarkozy was to speak in Paris at around 9:00pm.
Opinion polls and campaigning were banned from midnight
on Friday, and will resume on Monday in the build-up to the May 6 run-off,
which Hollande is predicted to win by around 55% to 45.
Sarkozy and Hollande face a two-week scramble for the
line, including a head-to-head televised debate that could be the incumbent's
last chance to change his fortunes.
Privately however, Sarkozy's top supporters had begun to
admit that if Sarkozy failed to regain the momentum and slip ahead of Hollande
on Sunday, he would have too much ground left to make up.