PARIS — The Socialist candidate, Francois Hollande, won a narrow victory in Sunday's first round of France's presidential elections, riding promises of economic growth and a general dislike for President Nicolas Sarkozy into a favorable position before a runoff with Sarkozy on May 6.
The vote seemed to reflect a desire for change in France after 17 years of centrist, conservative presidents. And it could continue an anti-incumbency trend that began with the economic crisis in Western Europe, where center-right governments dominate from Britain to Spain to Germany.
It may also represent the first stirrings of a challenge to the German-dominated narrative of the euro crisis, which holds that public debt and runaway spending are the main culprits and that austerity must precede growth. Over the weekend, the Dutch government was left tottering after failing to gain a majority in support of austerity measures, and demonstrators in the Czech Republic turned out in the greatest numbers since 1989 to protest a tax increase and budget cuts.
The French vote "is a reaction against austerity, and austerity is you," Hollande's campaign manager, Pierre Moscovici, said to the leader of Sarkozy's party, Jean-Francois Cope.
Hollande, 57, has said he would increase spending — creating state jobs for teachers and the police and subsidizing job creation in industry — and later raise taxes. Sarkozy, 57, has put his emphasis on spending cuts, reducing the tax burden on companies and liberalizing the labor market.
Hollande finished with 28.5 percent of the ballots cast and Sarkozy with 27.1 percent, according to figures released by the Interior Ministry after the last polls closed. They were followed by Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front with 18.2 percent, Jean-Luc Melenchon of the Left Front party with 11.1 percent, the centrist Francois Bayrou with 9.1 percent and five other candidates with minimal support.
While Sarkozy's total was only a percentage point or two short of Hollande's, the view of most experts has been that unless Sarkozy took the first round, he would have a hard time winning the runoff.
The strong showing by Le Pen gave some heart Sunday night to Sarkozy's supporters, since the two share similar themes about immigration, radical Islam, and law and order. But a number of Le Pen voters have said they will abstain or vote against Sarkozy in the second round.
"This is an election that will weigh on the future of Europe," Hollande said after voting. "That's why many people are watching us. They're wondering not so much what the winner's name will be, but especially what policies will follow."