PARIS -- In a crucial vote that drew a huge turnout, Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal finished first and second in yesterday's opening round of balloting for the French presidency. They will face each other in a May 6 runoff to succeed Jacques Chirac, the incumbent.
Sarkozy, the candidate from Chirac's center-right party, received 30 percent of the vote, according to exit polls and partial results. Royal, the Socialist Party candidate and the first woman with a serious chance of winning the French presidency, received 24 percent.
Francois Bayrou, a centrist candidate who threatened to pass Royal in the polls as recently as a month ago, had 18 percent. He is now the potential kingmaker who could swing his votes to either candidate in the second round.
"French politics changed this evening and will never be the same again. There is, at last, a center in France that is large, strong and independent," Bayrou, 55, told supporters at his campaign headquarters. "All decisions in the days ahead will be influenced by the fact that a new politics has been born."
Meanwhile, the far-right's Jean-Marie Le Pen finished a distant fourth, with 11 percent -- his worst finish in four presidential campaigns. In the prior one, Le Pen shocked the nation when he slipped past Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin to make it to a runoff against Chirac.
Bitter memories of Jospin's failure in 2002 no doubt stuck with voters on the left, who this time were much less inclined to scatter their votes among the half-dozen leftist candidates on the ballot and instead rallied around Royal.
Turnout yesterday appeared to be close to 85 percent, which would be a record high for what many commentators believe is France's most important election in decades.
With just two weeks to go before the second round, attention now focuses on the 44 percent of the electorate who did not vote for Sarkozy or Royal, and especially on the 18 percent who voted for Bayrou.
Although Bayrou has served in center-right governments, and his party generally is seen as slightly right of center, in recent days the French news media have been buzzing with talk of a potential deal with Royal.
With Sarkozy likely to pick up most of the Le Pen votes and with Royal the probable beneficiary of the second-round votes from left-wing parties, both candidates are expected to move toward the center, analysts say.
Decades of stubbornly high unemployment, increasing competition from economies such as China's and a sense that France is losing influence in the world made this a passionate campaign. Both Royal and Sarkozy have promised to get France back on its feet -- but offer starkly different paths.
Sarkozy, 52, the son of Hungarian immigrants, has been criticized for his pro-American tendencies and for his proposed economic reforms that many fear would undermine the country's extensive and expensive social welfare system.
In his victory speech, Sarkozy said he believes in a society based on work and merit, and that he wants "to help people realize their dreams of succeeding with their lives." He said he hopes to "instill a taste for entrepreneurship and even risk."
Royal, 53, whose campaign has been plagued by gaffes and public infighting, seemed to misstep again yesterday when she kept the national television audience waiting more than an hour and a half for her victory speech.
She favors strong protections for French workers and generous social benefits but said it is "urgent to leave behind a system that no longer works."
She called for "a new France that is a protector, that is dynamic and combative, and that enables all of its people to build and succeed with their lives."
Royal, whose longtime partner and the father of her four children is Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande, described herself as "a free woman, not hostage to any influence or pressure group."
To win the May 6 runoff, Sarkozy and Royal will have to overcome strong negative perceptions.
Many see Sarkozy as an aggressive and dangerously authoritarian figure with a chip on his shoulder. His foes accuse him of pandering to the far right with his tough talk on law and order and immigration.
Royal, meanwhile, faces criticism for promising new social benefits, including an increase in the minimum wage, but without saying how they would be funded.
"Where will the money come from? It's completely unrealistic," said Solweig Lancelin, an administrative assistant in Paris who said she probably would vote for Royal anyway because of her intense dislike for the alternative.
"If Sarkozy wins, I will leave the country," she vowed.
Anne Perru, a retired recruitment executive, who voted for Bayrou, said she would cast a blank ballot in the runoff as a protest against both candidates.
Tom Hundley writes for the Chicago Tribune. The Associated Press contributed to this article.