Far-rightist Marine Le Pen threw the French presidential race wide open on Sunday by scoring nearly 20 percent in the first round – votes that may determine a runoff between Socialist favorite Francois Hollande and conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Hollande narrowly beat Sarkozy by 28.6% to 27.1%, the Interior Ministry said, meaning the two will meet in a head-to-head decider on May 6 that may be closer than had been expected.

My final duty, and I know I’m being watched from beyond our borders, is to put Europe back on the path of growth and employment,” Hollande said in a speech at his headquarters.

Le Pen’s record score of 19.6% was the sensation of the night, beating her father’s 2002 result and outpolling hard leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon in fourth place with 11%. Centrist Francois Bayrou finished fifth with less than 9%.

It was the first time a sitting president seeking reelection had been beaten into second place in the first round. But Sarkozy backers at his campaign headquarters chanted “We are going to win,” interpreting Le Pen’s score as more significant than Hollande’s narrow lead over the incumbent.

Before voting, opinion polls had suggested a comfortable win for the Socialist in the second round.

Dozens of gatherers at a screening of the election results in Tel Aviv on Sunday night cheered as the results were announced.

The guests, who were invited to a soirée held on the rooftop of the French Institute to mark the election, had mixed reactions when news broke that the current president came in second and jeered at the mention of Le Pen.

Some 150 French diplomats, expats and Israeli Francophiles attended the soirée. Two jumbo screens tuned to French news channels were placed on the broad balcony overlooking Rothschild Boulevard in anticipation of the poll results. Guests including French Ambassador Christophe Bigot and Israeli journalist Yaron London sipped French merlot while debating the pros and cons of the candidates.

Earlier on Sunday, a long and relatively orderly line – a rarity in this sometimes impatient part of the world – formed outside the French Embassy in Tel Aviv. “There are some 62,000 registered voters in Israel,” said Bigot.

“There are many, many more French citizens here but that is the number of those registered to vote. I don’t know how many will vote but I hope that as many as possible will.”

The embassy is conveniently located near Ben Yehuda Street, an area of Tel Aviv where many French Jews own second homes. Along the street, immobiliers outnumber real estate agents and restaurants catering to the observant Jews of France prominently place kosher signs on their windows. On the day of the election, French could be heard on almost every corner.

Meanwhile in Haifa, Noam Schalit, whose son was held captive by Hamas for years, voted at the local French consulate, media reported. Schalit, who lobbied Sarkozy to pressure the Palestinian group to return Gilad, did not say how he voted.

Hervé Schneid, a film editor from Paris, said he supported “anybody but Sarkozy.”

“The president should be a superior person,” he said. “But he is ruthless, uneducated and without any morals.”

Jonathan Itteh, who lives in Givatayim and is from Marseille, said he voted at the last minute for Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, from Arise the Public, but in the run-off he plans to vote for Sarkozy.

“Hollande in my opinion is dangerous to Israel if he is elected, especially in the case of a strike on Iran,” he said.

Joanna Simone-Bigart, a 27-year-old Jerusalemite from Strasbourg, was particularly worried about the strong showing for Le Pen.

“I have a big problem because I cannot believe that in 2012 we can still see a rightist get so many votes,” she said.

Le Pen’s unexpectedly high score reflected a surge in anti-establishment populist parties in many euro zone countries from the Netherlands to Greece as austerity and the debt crisis bite.

“This first round is the start of a vast gathering of right-wing patriots,” Le Pen told cheering supporters at her campaign headquarters, without endorsing either of the finalists. “Nothing will ever be the same again.”

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