Hollande, Sarkozy set for France presidential run-off

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist candidate Francois Holland are set to advance to a run-off vote next month after today's first round of voting in the country's presidential election.

Partial ballot results project socialist candidate slightly ahead of incumbent

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist candidate Francois Holland are set to advance to a run-off vote next month after today's first round of voting in the country's presidential election.

With half of the votes counted, Hollande had 28 per cent of ballots cast and Sarkozy 26.9 per cent, according to figures released by the Interior Ministry after Sunday's first-round election.

In his speech on Sunday, Hollande pledged to cut the country's debt and boost growth, proclaiming that he has become the candidate "of all the forces who want to turn one page and turn another.."

To an exuberant crowd in his hometown of Tulle in southern France, he pledged to unite the French after Sarkozy's divisive first term. He also expressed concern about the strong third-place showing of far right candidate Marine Le Pen.

Socialist Party candidate for the presidential election Francois Hollande promises to tackle the country's debt. (Christophe Ena/Associated Press)

Le Pen came in strong with a third place finish, grabbing 19 per cent of the vote. She ran on an to anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim slate. If the result stands, it would mark the highest showing ever for her party.

In 2002, her father, National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, garnered nearly 16.8 percent of the vote in the first round and was propelled into the final round and a face-off with then-President Jacques Chirac.

Florian Philippot, strategic director of Le Pen's campaign, called her score on Sunday 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."

French officials reported an impressive 70.6-per-cent turnout in the first round in Sarkozy's uncertain bid for a second, five-year term in office, outstripping the numbers in the four previous races.

Hollande a self-styled 'ordinary man'

Of the 10 candidates vying to lead the country, only centre-right Sarkozy and Hollande will go on to the second and deciding round of voting on May 6.

Opinion polls have shown that many French people are dissatisfied with Sarkozy's response to concerns about the economy and jobs.

Many who were drawn to Sarkozy in 2007 have also become disillusioned with what they see as his flashy style.

Hollande, the self styled "ordinary man," has promised to reverse some of Sarkozy's public spending cuts and to introduce a tax on the super-rich.

Sarkozy, defending his record on the campaign trail, has repeatedly pointed to a tough economic climate and debt troubles across Europe, not just in France.

Polls have shown that concerns about jobs, with the unemployment rate hovering near a 10-year high, and the economy are top issues, and all candidates campaigned about the economy.

The campaign has often centred on topical issues such as immigration, Islam in France, and calls for taxes on the rich, which experts suggest will, in fact, have little effect on France's high state budget deficit.

The presidential election will determine the make-up of the next government and will finish just a month before elections for the National Assembly which is currently controlled by Sarkozy's conservatives.

Other candidates included Communist-backed firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon and centrist Francois Bayrou.