PARIS, (Reuters) – Far-rightist Marine Le Pen threw France’s presidential race wide open yesterday by polling nearly 19 percent in the first round – votes that may tip a runoff between Socialist favourite Francois Hollande and conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Hollande led Sarkozy by 28.2 percent to 27.0 percent with more than four fifths of votes counted, the Interior Ministry said, meaning the two will meet head-to-head in a decider on May 6 that may be closer than pundits had been expected.
Le Pen’s record score of 18.6 percent was the sensation of the night, beating her father’s 2002 result and outpolling hard leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon in fourth place on 10.9 percent. Centrist Francois Bayrou finished fifth on 9.2 percent.
Hollande, 57, told cheering supporters he was best placed to lead France towards change and declared: “My final duty, and I know I’m being watched from beyond our borders, is to put Europe back on the path of growth and employment.”
Sarkozy, who has led the world’s fifth largest economy for five years, responded defiantly to his setback – the first time in the 54-year history of the present electoral system that a sitting president seeking re-election had been beaten into second place in the first round.
In a rousing speech, he challenged the Socialist to three television debates over the next two weeks instead of the customary one, and vowed in response to Le Pen’s surge to tighten border controls, stop factories leaving France, make work pay and defend law and order.
Two opinion polls taken during yesterday’s voting by the IPSOS and Ifop institutes suggested the Socialist would beat the incumbent by 54 to 46 percent in the second round. But much yet depends on how each appeals to supporters of Le Pen and others.
“Sarkozy is going to be torn between campaigning in the middle ground and campaigning on the right. He’ll have to reach out to the right between the rounds and so he’ll lose the centre,” said Stephane Rozes of the CAP think-tank.
Le Pen, who took over the anti-immigration National Front in 2011, wants jobs reserved for French nationals at a time when jobless claims are at a 12-year high. She also wants France to abandon the euro currency and restore monetary policy to Paris.
“This first round is the start of a vast gathering of right-wing patriots,” she told cheering supporters at her campaign headquarters, without endorsing either finalist and slamming Sarkozy. “Nothing will ever be the same again.”
Le Pen’s unexpectedly high score reflected a surge in anti-establishment populist parties in many euro zone countries from the Netherlands to Greece as austerity and the debt crisis bite.
Jean-Marie Le Pen, 83, visibly elated at his daughter’s result, said the National Front would now focus on winning seats in June parliamentary elections.
The IPSOS survey suggested 60 percent of Le Pen’s voters would back Sarkozy in the second round, while Ifop put the proportion at 48 percent, with one in five voting for Hollande. Le Pen said she would give her view on the second round in a speech at a May Day rally in Paris a week on Tuesday.
NOTHING IN BAG
Sarkozy’s closest supporters insisted he still had a fighting chance now that the president is facing a single challenger instead of nine in the first round.