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Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy head for run-off

Socialist Francois Hollande and conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy are heading for a run-off in the race for France's presidency, according to partial official results after a first round of voting.

Voters also handed a surprisingly strong third-place showing to anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim candidate Marine Le Pen, the partial results indicated.

The contest, to be resolved in the run-off on May 6, could alter the European political landscape as the continent deals with a financial crisis.

Mr Hollande was in the overall lead, amid widespread disappointment with Mr Sarkozy's first term and a sense that the incumbent favours the rich when the country is struggling with unemployment and bleak economic prospects.

With about 33% of the vote counted, Mr Hollande had 27.5% of ballots cast and Mr Sarkozy 26.6%, according to figures released by the Interior Ministry after final polls closed.

Ms Le Pen, who has campaigned on anti-Islam rhetoric, was in third with 19.9 % of the vote so far. Ms Le Pen, predicting a first-round surprise, said in an interview last week that she would consider it a victory if she matched the first-round score of her father, National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 2002. That year, he got nearly 16.8% of the vote and was propelled into the final round and a face-off with then-President Jacques Chirac.

Florian Philippot, strategic director of Ms Le Pen's campaign, called her score a "very, very beautiful victory" with a long-term impact. "I think tonight Marine Le Pen becomes chief of the opposition," he said on BFM TV. "Nicolas Sarkozy is already gone."

In fourth place was leftist firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon, followed by centrist Francois Bayrou and five other candidates with minimal support.

"Francois for President!" chanted Hollande supporters at a buoyant gathering outside his campaign headquarters in Paris' Left Bank. "We will win! We will win!" chanted Sarkozy fans across town.

Turnout was also surprisingly high. The Interior Ministry said early turnout figures showed 70.6% of France's 44-million-plus voters cast ballots before 5pm (3pm GMT) - less than the 73.8% in 2007 at the same time, but more than in the four previous races.

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