By Catherine Bremer and Emmanuel Jarry
PARIS, April 22 (Reuters) - Far-rightist Marine Le Pen threw France's presidential race wide open on Sunday by scoring nearly 20 percent in the first round - votes that may determine the runoff between Socialist favourite Francois Hollande and conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Hollande led Sarkozy by about 29 to 26 percent in reliable computer projections broadcast after polling stations closed, and the two will meet in a head-to-head decider on May 6.
But Le Pen's record score of 18-20 percent was the sensation of the night, beating her father's 2002 result and outpolling hard leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon, in fourth place on 11 percent. Centrist Francois Bayrou finished fifth on less than 10 percent.
Le Pen, who took over the anti-immigration National Front in early 2011, wants jobs reserved for French nationals at a time when jobless claims are at a 12-year high. She also advocates abandoning the euro currency and restoring monetary policy to Paris.
Her score reflected a surge in anti-establishment populist parties in many euro zone countries from Amsterdam to Athens as austerity and the debt crisis bite.
Voter surveys show about half of her supporters would back Sarkozy in a second round and perhaps one fifth would vote for Hollande, making her a potential kingmaker in the runoff.
Jean-Marie Le Pen's 16.9 percent score in the 2002 first round caused a political earthquake, knocking then Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin out of the runoff and forcing left-wing voters to rally behind conservative Jacques Chirac.
Sarkozy, 57, has painted himself as the safest pair of hands to lead France and the euro zone in turbulent times, but Sunday's vote appeared to be a strong rejection of his flashy style as well as his economic record.
If Hollande wins on May 6, joining a small minority of left-wing governments in Europe, he has promised to lead a push for a bigger focus on growth in the euro zone, mainly by adding pro-growth clauses to a European budget discipline treaty.
The prospect of a renegotiation of the pact is causing some concern in financial markets, as is Hollande's focus on tax rises over austerity at a time when sluggish growth is threatening France's ability to meet deficit-cutting goals.
France's sickly growth, along with its stubbornly high unemployment, are major factors hampering Sarkozy's battle to win a second term, despite an energetic campaign against the blander but more popular Hollande.
Sarkozy would be the 11th euro zone leader to be swept out since the start of the bloc's debt crisis in late 2009 and the first French president to lose a re-election bid in more than 30 years. A deep dislike of a manner many see as arrogant and too informal has also driven many people to vote against him.
"France needs a radical change of direction, mainly on the economy," said Jean-Noel Harvet, a public sector worker voting earlier on Sunday in the northern town of Cambrai.
Hollande, 57, promises less drastic spending cuts than Sarkozy proposed and wants higher taxes on the wealthy to fund state-aided job creation, in particular a 75 percent upper tax rate on income above 1 million euros ($1.32 million).
He would be only France's second left-wing leader since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958, and its first since Francois Mitterrand, who beat incumbent Valery Giscard-d'Estaing in 1981 and ruled until 1995.
Hollande had called on his supporters to take nothing for granted, mindful of the fiasco for the left in 2002 when record abstention saw the Socialist Jospin pushed out in the first round by the elder Le Pen.
Turnout ended up at a healthy 70.6 percent three hours before polls closed, just below 73.9 percent recorded in the 2007, which was the highest in two decades.
<a href=" http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article6106250.ece" target="_hplink">According</a> to the <em>Sunday Times</em>, Sarkozy said of President Obama: "[He] has a subtle mind, very clever and very charismatic...but he was elected two months ago and had never run a ministry. There are a certain number of things on which he has no position. And he is not always up to standard on decision-making and efficiency."
In Jonathan Alter's 2010 book <em>The Promise</em>, the author <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/05/10/sarkozy-sex-rumor-book-cl_n_569459.html" target="_hplink">claims</a> that Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni kept a senior head of state waiting while they had sex. Although the French first couple is notoriously late, many have speculated that the "senior head of state" in question is Queen Elizabeth II.
Of Angela Merkel, Sarkozy is quoted as <a href="http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/8269855/Nicolas-Sarkozys-gaffes.html" target="_hplink">saying</a> the German Chancellor had "no choice but to give in to my line."
During the height of the financial crisis, Sarkozy<a href="http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/politics/gordon-brown/6341259/Nicolas-Sarkozy-tells-Gordon-Brown-I-love-you...-But-not-in-a-sexual-way.html" target="_hplink"> reportedly</a> told former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown: "You know, Gordon, I should not like you. You are Scottish, we have nothing in common and you are an economist. But somehow, Gordon, I love you... But not in a sexual way."
In reference to Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Sarkozy <a href="http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article6106250.ece" target="_hplink">reportedly</a> said, "Perhaps he's not very clever -- but I know people who were very clever and who did not make the second round of the presidential election."
In November 2007, Sarkozy was accused of <a href="http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/6532711/Berlin-Wall-anniversary-doubts-cast-over-Nicolas-Sarkozys-pickaxe-claim.html" target="_hplink">overstating</a> his part in the fall of the Berlin Wall, after he claimed to have rushed with a pickax in hand the night it fell. Archives suggested he only showed up a week later.
At a 2008 agricultural fair in Paris, Sarkozy got into a tiff with a member of the crowd who wouldn't shake his hand,<a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSL2454109820080224" target="_hplink"> reportedly</a> telling the man: "Get lost, you dumb a**."
Much like Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Sarkozy has been accused of racism, <a href="http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article6106250.ece" target="_hplink">reportedly </a>telling a black priest, "My compliments, you are very suntanned," and an African boy, "I wish I had as much time to lie in the sun as you do."
In April 2010, Sarkozy scolded a young man at a rally in the city of Chambery on Thursday, yelling, "Fais pas le malin!" or "Don't be a wise guy," after the man pretended to wipe his hand after shaking the president's. A <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gfEQEYbLn8w&feature=player_embedded" target="_hplink">clip</a> of the incident went viral shortly thereafter.
During a November 2010 NATO briefing, Sarkozy <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/nov/23/nicolas-sarkozy-paedophiles-french-president" target="_hplink">reportedly</a> lashed out with a 10-minute diatribe against journalists, before walked off, declaring: "See you tomorrow, pedophile friends."