Early returns released after polls closed showed Hollande with about 28% of the vote to Sarkozy's 26%, a margin consistent with pre-election polls. Eight other candidates trailed.
The biggest surprise was the strong showing of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, who received about 20%. That would be the strongest electoral showing her party has ever made -- about double the percentage her father Jean-Marie Le Pen received in 2007.
Marine Le Pen knocked left-wing firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon into fourth place, becoming the kingmaker in the May 6 runoff between Hollande and Sarkozy. At least half of her voters are expected to support Sarkozy.