Conservative Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Ségolène Royal will face each other in a runoff for president on May 6, after one of the largest voter turnouts in French history.
The vote gives a clear choice between a right and a left direction for one of Europe's most influential nations, and may possibly allow France to elect its first female head of state.
When the polls closed at 8 p.m. Paris time, preliminary results showed Mr. Sarkozy, the former interior minister, with 29.6 percent of the vote, and Ms. Royal with 25.1 percent, according to French election officials.
A "Sarko-Ségo" run-off is probably the least surprising outcome in what has been a wide-open, 12-candidate race, where "undecided" has been the standard voter reply to pollsters for months. François Bayrou, the so-called "third option" in the race, and nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen, finished with 18.7 and 11.5 percent respectively.
Voter turnout was confirmed to be at least 75 percent at 5 p.m., with projections showing that up to 87 percent of France's 44.5 million voters would cast ballots.
Front-runner Sarkozy, in a speech at his campaign headquarters moments after the polls closed, said a race between himself and Royal would offer "two ideas for the future, two projects for society ... and we have the responsibility to make the positions as clear as possible."
At 9:45 p.m., Royal gave a speech emphasizing brotherhood and justice. She said, it's time to engage in a "fight for change so that France can stand up again."
The view from the suburbs
At the Ambroise Thomas public school in Argenteuil, a heavily immigrant Paris suburb that saw rioting in 2005, French citizens waited hours in unseasonable heat to vote overwhelmingly for Royal. Two Moroccan women, Jamilia and Fatima, both wearing designer sunglasses, raced into the school in the afternoon, only to reappear moments later. The lines were so long, they decided to watch a Hollywood film, and come back in the evening to vote.
"People need to say what they think," Jamilia said, noting that while she felt Royal is not a true leftist, "she is a woman, and since men have ruled here so long, and not so well, maybe a woman can offer something different."
In the wealthy suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, where Sarkozy launched his political career in his early 20s and where he cast his vote Sunday morning, most residents voted for him. In the city center, national police squads deployed from the south-central city of Lyon were parked along a tree-lined street where kids were kicking soccer balls. They drove to Paris three days ago, but an officer said the vote had been peaceful throughout France.
"If the vote goes a certain way, we might have some trouble after dark," he said, "but we don't expect it."
Change for France – and Europe
The French election has been passionately debated here. Voters say they deeply feel the need for change – though it was not always clear what change of direction they want in a society that has long relied on a state social-welfare model.
France has such pull and clout in Europe, that the Continent has been waiting for the final round of elections on May 6 to determine a direction on a constitution that would further unify the European Union.