One in five voted for National Front candidate Marine Le Pen, while Nicolas Sarkozy came second to socialist rival Francois Hollande.
Early exit poll figures released last night indicate 57-year-old Hollande had won the first round with 28.4 per cent. Sarkozy, also 57, had picked 25.5 per cent of the vote.
Le Pen took third place with 20 per cent. This was four percentage points more than her father, former National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, achieved in 2002 when he was runner-up to Jacques Chirac in the second round.
Marine Le Pen had secured significant support from many young French people attracted to her anti-immigration, anti-Europe and anti-globalisation manifesto.
The way Le Pen’s millions of supporters vote now could decide who will become France’s next president in the run-off in a fortnight.
Polling organisation IFOP estimated that there was a turnout of 80 per cent yesterday.
Ten candidates went to the ballot. Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who wants to impose 100 per cent tax on very high earners, received 12 per cent of the vote, while moderate centrist Francois Bayrou collected only 9 per cent.
Hollande is the favourite in the 6 May run-off and would become France’s first socialist president since Francois Mitterrand 17 years ago.
Hollande’s plans include a 75 per cent tax for those earning more than 1 million euros a year and increasing the numbers of those working in France’s public service.
If beaten in the final vote, Sarkozy would become the first president to serve only one term since 1981, which saw the exit of Valery Giscard d’Estaing.
France’s new president will take up office at the Elysée Palace in Paris on 16 May.
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