Le Pen holds key for Sarkozy

Hollande pushes President Sarkozy into second place as Far Right candidate grabs surprise record vote

NEW opinion polls have said François Hollande will be a clear winner of the next round of the presidential election after he pushed Nicolas Sarkozy into second place in the first round.

Hollande led Sarkozy by 28.59% to 27.06% and the revised opinion polls predict a victory on May 6 of between 52 and 56% of the vote.

However, the unexpectedly strong performance of the Front National's Marine Le Pen - who took a record 18.06% to grab third place - makes the verdict less certain.

Polls had said her vote would be around the 15% mark, neck and neck with Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Front de Gauche, who trailed her at 10.9%.

Instead, she received the highest percentage vote ever for the Front National and the highest number of votes.

Now she is in a key position as the strong turnout of 80.44%, again not as predicted by the pollsters, means there are few floating voters for either Sarkozy or Hollande to target.

Le Pen had been predicting a surprise as the result of her efforts to "de-demonise" the Far Right party and said last night: "The French people have been invited to the table of the elite."

Political pundits have said 50-60% of her voters would swing behind Sarkozy.

For Sarkozy, the verdict is a personal failure after trying to win over right-wing voters with hardline policies on immigration and French jobs.

Hollande said it was a "rejection" of his policies over the past five years.

Green candidate Eva Joly, who took 2.3%, blamed Sarkozy for Le Pen's success saying his bid to appease the Far Right had just directed support to Le Pen. She called on her supporters to back Hollande.

Mélenchon has already called on his supporters to vote against Sarkozy in the next round, but pointedly failed to mention Hollande by name or the Parti Socialiste.