PARIS — With his hopes of gaining momentum from a first-round vote win dashed, French President Nicolas Sarkozy's chances of defying expectations and holding on to office are now slimmer than ever.
Facing the lowest approval ratings of any French president and trailing in the polls for months, Sarkozy's camp had said a win in Sunday's first round was crucial to give him hope for the second round run-off in two weeks.
Instead, Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande has cemented his lead, winning with between 28 and 29 percent of the vote to between 25.5 and 27 percent for Sarkozy, according to polling firm estimates.
Analysts said the high score of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, who took between 18.2 and 20 percent, would give no comfort to Sarkozy.
"Given these results, Sarkozy is finished," said political analyst Gerard Grunberg.
"His fate is in the hands of Marine Le Pen and she will do nothing to help him, on the contrary."
Analysts said Sarkozy failed to overcome widespread voter anger at his first five-year term -- marked by his extravagant style, a moribund economy and increasing joblessness.
Hollande rode a wave of anti-Sarkozy feeling, despite the incumbent's efforts to paint his Socialist rival's traditional tax-and-spend programme as potentially disastrous for the French economy.
Sarkozy is now stuck between trying to attract voters who backed Le Pen of the National Front and those of centrist Francois Bayrou, who took between 8.5 and 9.1 percent.
"It will be very difficult for Sarkozy to turn this trend around. His campaign strengthened the National Front and he will struggle to win the centre," said Stephane Rozes of the CAP political analysis institute.
By beating her father Jean-Marie's 2002 score of 16.86 percent, Le Pen won the largest-ever result for a far-right candidate in the first round, proving the movement remains a force after her father's retirement last year.
Analysts said Sarkozy's failure to attract far-right voters in the first round -- despite boosting his anti-immigration rhetoric -- does not bode well for the second round.
Many could decide to simply stay home in the second round instead of backing Sarkozy.
"The challenge now is that it is essential for Sarkozy to win over the electorate of the National Front. But every time he goes into this territory, he fails," said Gael Sliman of the BVA institute.
A swing back to centre to attract Bayrou's centrist voters is also unlikely to give Sarkozy the necessary boost, analysts said.
In a polarised campaign Bayrou -- who came third in 2007 with 18.6 percent -- suffered a poor showing and failed to make a case for centrist policies.
Hollande meanwhile is going into the second round not only as the confirmed frontrunner, but also with a large package of far-left voters all but sure to rally behind him.
Communist-backed firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon failed to live up to his billing as the shock of the campaign, but still gave the radical left a credible double-digit result with between 10.8 and 11.7 percent.
Melenchon lured tens of thousands of exuberant supporters to rallies in Paris, Toulouse and Marseille during the campaign, giving new life to a radical left that has no other way to oust Sarkozy than to support Hollande.
Shortly after polls closed Melenchon called on his supporters to help defeat Sarkozy.
"With his votes and those of Melenchon, Hollande can consider he won an ample victory that gives him a free hand," said Rozes.
And analysts said that with the race now reduced to two, the French public's disappointment with Sarkozy will play an even more important role in the run-off.
"The 'anti-Sarkozy referendum' side of the election will be even stronger in the second round," said political analyst Remy Lefebvre.
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