PARIS (Reuters) - Far-right victory cries all but drowned out left-wing cheers on Sunday as anti-immigration National Front leader Marine Le Pen upstaged France’s two main presidential rivals with a record score that makes her a kingmaker in their runoff.
Almost everyone claimed victory: Le Pen voters feted a 19-percent score that rattled the establishment; Socialist Francois Hollande’s backers cheered his first-round win; and supporters of incumbent conservative Nicolas Sarkozy bet that the Le Pen surprise could tip the odds in his favor for a May 6 runoff.
“For us this is a new start,” said Marion le Pen-Marechal, granddaughter of National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen as party members chanted “Victory!”, downed champagne and boogied to 1980s disco tunes by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie.
“From today, we will position ourselves as the main opposition party,” the candidate’s 21-year-old niece told Reuters.
At midnight, when the mainstream parties had packed up and gone home, Le Pen’s supporters were still dancing. Polls suggest most will vote for Sarkozy in two weeks’ time, though many booed him when he appeared on television screens during the evening.
Across town, at a square named in honor of Stalingrad, several thousand supporters of Communist-back firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon saw their hopes of celebrating a breakthrough overshadowed by Le Pen’s stunning score.
Melenchon, who at one point overtook the far rightist for third place in opinion polls but ended a distant fourth with 11 percent, urged his followers to vote massively to defeat Sarkozy - but he could not bring himself to utter Hollande’s name.
Flag-waving leftists, visibly disappointed, melted away within minutes of the first results being announced - a far cry from the mass rallies at which Melenchon revived the battle call of the French Revolution and the working class struggle.
At Sarkozy’s packed central Paris convention hall, lit in the blue, white and red colors of the French flag, subdued activists started to shout “We’re going to win, we’re going to win!” when a screen flashed up Le Pen’s score.
As Sarkozy vowed a new focus on immigration, crime and border controls in response to Le Pen’s surge, his stunned supporters said they hoped far-right votes could help him bite into Hollande’s 10 point opinion poll lead for round two.
“It’s a very nice demonstration of French democracy,” said Bertrand Corre, 23, saying Sarkozy needed to heed the discontent shown by the surge in the protest vote. “I think Sarkozy will be able to get everyone behind him. He has a plan and a presence.”
”Now we have to get Le Pen’s supporters without making any concessions,“ said Sarkozy supporter Olivier Hovel. ”Most National Front voters are victims of the economic crisis.
“They are not fascists.”
Across town, at what could have been the only victory party, Socialist activists wearing “Hollande 2012” T-shirts and waving party flags filled a wide avenue facing the river Seine and stayed glued to a giant screen counting down to the result.
Fired up by the hopes of electing the first left-wing leader since Francois Mitterrand’s 1981-1995 rule, they erupted in a chorus of cheers and chants of “Francois president!” as Hollande’s winning 28 percent score was displayed on a screen.
“This is just what we needed for the first round. It’s a first step toward victory, but most of all it’s a feeling of liberation,” said party campaigner Jean-Baptiste Baud, 24.
Some clambered up traffic light poles to catch a better view of the screen, obscured by tricolor flags and banners emblazoned with the Socialist red rose logo.
“This gives us great momentum for the second round,” said Louise Margolin, who was not even born the last time a Socialist won a French presidential election. “It’s as if we were reliving what our parents experienced when Mitterrand was elected,” the 21-year-old law student said.
As the din died down, Hollande supporters slipped bottles of wine and champagne out of backpacks and toasted their first-round win. “It’s not every day you see the Left winning,” one reveler grinned.
Sarkozy had already hardened his campaign rhetoric to appeal to Le Pen supporters, using recent meetings to rail about halal meat in school cafeterias, full-face Islamic veils and separate bathing times for men and women in public swimming pools.
One supporter said he accepted the tactic, but reluctantly. “The rapprochement with the National Front doesn’t thrill me,” said law student Paul Alexandre. “But unfortunately we need it.”
Additional reporting by Alexandria Sage and Lionel Laurent; Writing by Catherine Bremer; Editing by Paul Taylor and Alastair Macdonald