Early officials results from France's first round presidential election show Socialist candidate Francois Hollande and conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy will advance to a runoff vote on May 6.
With about one-third of the ballots counted, Hollande was leading with 27.5 percent of the vote compared to 26.6 percent for Sarkozy. A candidate needs 50 percent of the vote to win the first round outright.
Official projections suggest Hollande will win the first round, marking the first time an incumbent has failed to win the first round of a presidential election since the French Fifth Republic was founded under a constitution that was introduced in 1958.
Correspondents report the mood at Sarkozy's campaign headquarters was somber during the final hour of voting on April 22.
Meanwhile, far right candidate Marine Le Pen was running in third place in the early results with about 20 percent of the vote -- a record for the National Front party founded by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon and veteran centrist Francois Bayrou were running in fourth and fifth place out of the 10 first-round candidates.
Voting was brisk, with turnout reportedly topping 80 percent of eligible voters. That turnout allayed concerns about voter apathy in a campaign season that was criticized as failing to address key issues like unemployment.
The vote was seen as a test for incumbent President Sarkozy, who has defended his performance in office despite sagging economic indicators.
A second-round loss by Sarkozy would make him the first French president in more than 30 years to fail to win a second term in office. It would also make Hollande the first Socialist president in France since Francois Mitterand left office in 1995.
Sarkozy cast his vote in an affluent Paris suburb, accompanied by his wife Carla Bruni. Sarkozy shook hands with bystanders but made no public remarks, in contrast to Hollande, who spoke to voters at several polling stations after casting his ballot in the French town of Tulle.
"It's an important visit. I took part in many elections here. I organized a lot of polling stations. I waited for many results here. Here, I am at home but I also wanted to come back to the place that represents many of our victories for me,” Hollande said.
Le Pen cast her vote in the former coal-mining town of Henin-Beaumont.
Also voting was former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who had been widely expected to run for president before his political hopes were dashed following a series of high-profile criminal sex allegations.
Strauss-Kahn cast his vote in the northern Paris suburb of Sarcelles, where he formerly served as mayor.
Despite the high-stakes rivalry, many French voters have complained of a lackluster campaign season and a dearth of strong political platforms.
Genevieve Baldi, speaking to Reuters after casting her ballot in Paris, said she felt obligated to vote, but didn't have much invested in the outcome.
"Yes, I do want to vote, but I'm not sure it's with that much enthusiasm. I'm a little bit resigned, because in any case we don't really have a choice -- so one has to vote for the candidate one prefers," Baldi said.
The vote includes the ballots of approximately 800,000 French citizens who live outside of France.
France has scheduled elections in June for its National Assembly, which currently is controlled by Sarkozy's conservatives.