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Challengers sap Sarkozy's support as French election hits final stretch

Socialist Francois Hollande and President Nicolas Sarkozy progressed to the final round of France's election, with the incumbent's hopes of victory resting on winning supporters from Marine Le Pen's anti-immigrant National Front.

Hollande won 27.1 percent of the vote against 26.7 percent for Sarkozy, the interior ministry said Sunday. Le Pen got 19.3 percent, a record for the National Front that surpassed the predictions of all pollsters. The second round takes place May 6.

The presidential race was thrown open by Le Pen's performance, which highlighted voters' angst in the face of unemployment at a 12-year high, immigration and a worsening debt crisis. While Hollande's first-round lead was narrower than polls predicted, Sarkozy must now appeal to National Front supporters without alienating more moderate voters.

"He's going to have to hunt right-wing voters," said Antonio Barroso, a political analyst at Eurasia Group in London. "That's a bad dynamic for the second round, when you normally want to capture the center and unite the country."

Le Pen's showing surpassed the 16.9 percent that propelled her father into the second round in 2002 and came after a campaign in which she slammed Sarkozy and Hollande as "Siamese twins" who offered no solutions to France's problems.

Her performance channeled voters' concerns about foreign workers taking French jobs, terrorism and the global financial crisis, issues that Sarkozy tried to tap during the campaign.

Sarkozy may now be tempted step up his criticism of the European Central Bank in a bid to boost his pro-growth credentials, said Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg Bank in London.

"The first round may offer a glimmer of hope for Sarkozy," he said. "But it also entails a risk that he could pander to right-wing sentiment on European issues in the next two weeks."

Hollande, 57, started drawing the battle lines for the second round, highlighting Sarkozy's appeal to anti-immigrant sentiment.

"I have no doubt he will use all the elements of fear," he told reporters at Brive-La-Gaillarde, central France, before flying to Paris. "I am stronger because I came first."

Sarkozy, the first incumbent since 1958 not to win the first round, said the results represent a "vote of crisis."

The French are "suffering, faced with the new world that is taking shape," he told supporters in Paris. "These worries, I know and understand. They rest on the respect of our borders, the fight against off-shoring and the crisis of immigration, the recognition of work and security."

According to a survey by the BVA polling company, 57 percent of Le Pen voters will back Sarkozy in the second round, while 23 percent will abstain, and 20 percent will back Hollande.

Sarkozy's term has been dominated by a financial crisis that started just months after he took office in May 2007 and is still ricocheting through Europe's bond markets.

Sarkozy, 57, argues that he protected France during the financial crisis by saving its banks and is pushing to expand the central bank's mandate to include spurring economic growth rather than just fighting inflation.

Hollande has pounced on his economic record, pointing to an unemployment rate that has now risen to 9.8 percent. France's economy has also been hurt by Europe's debt crisis, which contributed to France losing its AAA credit rating for the first time in January.