Early exit polls on Sunday placed Socialist candidate Francois Hollande firmly in the lead in the first round of the French presidential elections. But the biggest upset in this round was caused by Marine Le Pen, candidate of the extreme right National Front Party, who is estimated to have won close to 20 per cent of the votes. There is a two per cent margin of error in these results.

Mr. Hollande is estimated to have won 28.4 per cent of the vote, with incumbent conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy trailing him by three points, with 25 .5 per cent of the ballots cast. The turnout was extremely high — an estimated 80 per cent of the 44 million-strong electorate cast their ballot.

Final results will be announced post-midnight IST, but there is no doubt that Mr. Hollande, the steady, conciliatory Mr. Everybody, a modest man who usually moves around town on a scooter, has trounced his more flamboyant rival, viewed by many to be the friend of the rich.

Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Hollande will now face each other in the second round run-off on May 6. The outcome of that contest will depend on the percentage of votes from other first round candidates that will be transferred to the two.

There were explosions of joy at the headquarters of the Socialist Party in rue Solferino as the first confidential results came trickling in around 6.30 p.m. local time with party workers shouting “on a gagne,” or “we have won!”

Long faces were visible at Mr. Sarkozy's campaign headquarters in the rue de la Convention in the 15th district. In several parts of France and especially in the overseas departments and territories such as Guadeloupe or Reunion, Mr. Sarkozy lost as much as a third of the vote he won in 2007, when he beat socialist candidate Segolene Royal (Mr. Hollande's former partner) by 6 percentage points.

The extreme right wing National Front's leader Marine Le Pen came in third with a very strong showing of 17 per cent. Her father Jean Marie Le Pen barely won 10 per cent of the vote five years ago. Ms. Le Pen has managed to modernise the party, and efface, to a large extent, its anti-Semite image.

The Left Front leader Jean-Luc Melanchon, who had declared he would be happy if he won more votes than Ms. Le Pen, had to console himself with a result estimated between 14 to 16 per cent of the vote.

Most of Mr. Melanchon's voters are likely to vote for Mr. Hollande in the second round. The same cannot be said of the supporters of Ms. Le Pen and it is possible that a substantial percentage of her following abstains on 6 May.

The centrist candidate, Francois Bayrou, has been credited with 10 per cent of the vote. It is still unclear if Mr. Bayrou will call on his supporters to vote for Mr. Sarkozy in the second round. The outgoing President has allegedly offered him the Prime Minister's post in the next Cabinet if Mr. Bayrou agrees to throw his weight behind Mr. Sarkozy.

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