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Hollande and Sarkozy in Elysee duel

Francois Hollande, a mild-mannered French Socialist who wants to take better care of the jobless and the poor, is heading to a presidential run-off election against tough-on-immigration Nicolas Sarkozy in a vote which could alter Europe's political and economic landscape.

Mr Hollande heads into the May 6 second round with the upper hand after narrowly edging the conservative Mr Sarkozy in the first round of France's voting, according to near-complete official results.

In the campaign's biggest surprise, nearly one in five voters chose far right candidate Marine Le Pen instead, handing her a solid third place and a chance to weigh in on French politics with her anti-immigration platform that targets France's millions of Muslims.

With 93% of the vote counted, Mr Hollande had 28.4% of the ballots cast and Mr Sarkozy 27%, according to figures released by the Interior Ministry.

Mr Le Pen was in third with 18.3% of the vote so far, the best showing ever by the far right National Front party founded by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen. In fourth place was left-wing firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon with 11%, followed by centrist Francois Bayrou with 9.1% and five other candidates with minimal support.

Turnout was also surprisingly high, at more than 80%, despite concern that a campaign focusing on nostalgia for a more protected past would fail to inspire voters.

Mr Hollande, a 57-year-old who has worried financial markets with his pledges to boost government spending, vowed to cut France's huge debts, boost growth and unite the French after Mr Sarkozy's divisive first term.

"Tonight I become the candidate of all the forces who want to turn one page and turn over another," Mr Hollande, displaying a confidence and stately air he has often lacked during the campaign, told an exuberant crowd in his political fiefdom of Tulle in central France.

Mr Sarkozy, speaking at his campaign headquarters on Paris' Left Bank, said he recognised voters' concerns about jobs and immigration, and "the concern of our compatriots to preserve their way of life".

Ten candidates faced off for the first round of voting. Mr Sarkozy is battling to avoid becoming France's first one-term president since Valery Giscard d'Estaing lost to Socialist Francois Mitterrand in 1981. Mr Sarkozy has said he will pull out of politics if he loses.

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