PARIS - Trailing second in the first round of France's presidential elections, incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy is facing an uphill struggle in the second round against his leftist rival Francois Hollande, in a race shaken by the far-right's record first-round score.
"The choice is simple, either continue policies that have failed with a divisive incumbent candidate or raise France up again with a new, unifying president," Hollande told a victory rally in his rural political stronghold of Tulle late Sunday.
Hollande won 28.56 percent of the vote, with Sarkozy coming second with 27.07 percent, and far-right leader Marine Le Pen third with 18.12 percent, according to near-complete interior ministry results.
Being the first incumbent to lose a first round vote since the start of the Fifth Republic in 1958, Sarkozy sought to put positive spin on the result.
He also brandished his right-wing credentials in a clear nod to Le Pen supporters, explaining his poor showing as a result of a first round "vote of crisis" amid global economic chaos.
"These anxieties, this suffering, I know them, I understand them," he said.
"They are about respecting our borders, the determined fight against job relocation, controlling immigration, putting value on work, on security," he said, hitting on a number of key right-wing themes.
After the vote, Le Pen told jubilant supporters that the result was "only the start" and that the party was now "the only opposition" to the left.
"The battle of France has just begun ... we have exploded the monopoly of the two parties" - the Socialists and Sarkozy's UMP.
"Nothing will be as it was before ... the people of France have invited themselves to the table of the elite," she said at a remarkably triumphant rally for a candidate who went out at the first hurdle.
Le Pen, who leads the anti-immigration National Front party, achieved more than the breakthrough score polled in 2002 by her father and predecessor, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who got through to the second round with more than 16%.
The gravel-voiced blonde, who wants France to abandon the euro currency, said she would give her view on the runoff at a May Day rally in Paris next week.
"I will give my opinion on May 1," Le Pen said.
Campaigning for the April-May election has been marred by anti-Muslim rhetoric by the Elysee hopefuls, with candidates toning up their tones against Muslim immigrants and halal meat in a desperate effort to court far-right voters.
The anti-Muslim rhetoric has escalated after a spate of killings in Toulouse, from which Muslim leaders have distanced their faith.
Following the shootings, France has expelled a number of Muslim imams and banned the entry of others on claims of preaching hatred in the country.
France is home to six million Muslims, Europe's largest minority.
Preparing for the May 6 runoff, Sarkozy will have to attempt a difficult balancing act to attract both the far-right and centrist voters he needs to win.
"Sarkozy is going to be torn between campaigning in the middle ground and campaigning on the right," political scientist Stephane Rozes of the CAP think-tank told Reuters on Monday.
He'll have to reach out to the right between the rounds, so he'll lose the center.
The first opinion poll after the first round showed that Hollande would beat Sarkozy by 54 percent to 46 in the second round and that the attitude of Le Pen's supporters could be decisive.
Polling institute Ifop said that 48 percent of her backers would switch to Sarkozy and 31 percent to Hollande.
An OpinionWay poll said 18 percent of her supporters would back the Socialist and 39 percent Sarkozy.
The head of Sarkozy's UMP party, Jean-Francois Cope, said he looked forward to the second round.
From Monday "we will no longer be in a case of nine candidates against Nicolas Sarkozy, but we will be one-on-one, Nicolas Sarkozy against Francois Hollande ... then I think the match will be different," Cope told AFP.
The left has not won a presidential election in a quarter of a century, but with France mired in low growth and rising joblessness, opinion polls had long predicted the left would beat the right-wing incumbent.
Hollande says Sarkozy has trapped France in a downward spiral of austerity and job losses, while Sarkozy says his rival is inexperienced and weak-willed and would spark financial panic through reckless spending pledges.
The eurozone debt crisis and France's sluggish growth and high unemployment have hung over the campaign, with Sarkozy struggling to defend his record and Hollande unable to credibly promise spending increases.
"Sarkozy's leadership abilities were instrumental in the euro zone's fight against debt and investors are obviously worried that an absence of this key figure may be detrimental to further progress," said Oh On-su, an analyst at Hyundai Securities