Socialist candidate Francois Hollande edged incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy in the first round of France’s presidential contest on Sunday, setting up a close matchup between the two in the second round of voting. As Edward Cody reported:

Francois Hollande, the Socialist candidate for president of France, bested President Nicolas Sarkozy on Sunday in the first round of voting, according to the Interior Ministry, and headed into a May 6 runoff election favored to become the country’s next chief executive.

Hollande won 28.6 percent to Sarkozy’s 27.1 percent, the Interior Ministry said, with 99 percent of votes counted, according to the Associated Press, giving the Socialist contender momentum that commentators said will be hard to stop. Placing third was Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front, with up to 18 percent. The rest of the vote was spread among Jean-Luc Melenchon of the Leftist Front, with 11.1 percent, and six other minor candidates.

This is an act of confidence in the project I have presented to put the country back in order,” a smiling Hollande said in a post-vote statement.

The conservative Sarkozy, in office since 2007, has led France through the economic and financial crisis that has been battering Europe for four years, lowering living standards for millions. Like other European leaders, he saw his popularity decline as the crisis unfurled under his presidency and, partly as a result, has trailed Hollande consistently, with about 45 percent support vs. Hollande’s 55 percent, in polls measuring second-round preferences.

In a brief speech after the results became known, Sarkozy called the coming two weeks a “crucial confrontation” and challenged Hollande to meet him for three televised debates before May 6. Hollande has rejected suggestions that the traditional single debate be expanded to two.

Sarkozy may see his victory strategy in courting some of the voters who chose Marine Le Pen’s National Front in the first round of voting. As AP explained:

Socialist Francois Hollande and conservative Nicolas Sarkozy are going head-to-head in France’s presidential runoff, but a third figure looms large in the campaign: the leader of the nation’s far-right National Front.

Nearly one in five French voters cast their ballot in the first round for Marine Le Pen. She wants to pull out of the euro currency, reinstate border controls, crack down on immigrants and stamp out what she claims is the Islamization of France.

That means both Hollande, who had a slight lead in Sunday’s vote, and the incumbent Sarkozy are sure to reach out to the fringes, likely with protectionist rhetoric at a time when Europe is seeking steady leadership from France to help lead it out of its catastrophic debt crisis.

Voter frustration with the status quo and with the E.U. fed a rise of support for extremes at both ends of the political scale, making potential kingmakers out of 11 million voters who supported candidates of the far right and left.

In the biggest surprise of Sunday’s first round, voters gave Le Pen a strong third-place showing, handing her far-right National Front almost double the support it got in the last election in 2007 — and the most since her father, firebrand Jean-Marie Le Pen, founded the party.

Some of the rhetoric and ideas which will play a large role in the French elections would seem preposterous coming from a candidate in the U.S. presidential contest. As Ezra Klein reported:

1) Unadulterated bashing of the financial industry. Here was Francois Hollande, the Socialist presidential front-runner in France, back in January: “Let me tell you who my rival is. It does not bear a name or have a face, it’s the finance industry. In the past 20 years, the financial industry has taken control of our societies, of our lives and threatens our states.” In London the following month, this was Hollande’s way of dialing back his speech in a talk with investors: “I am not dangerous … [still], there must be regulation everywhere.”

And Jean Luc Melenchon, a onetime Trotskyist who was running to Hollande’s left, didn’t even make that minor concession. “I’m dangerous!,” he proudly told the Guardian. “Dangerous for financial interests, and dangerous for the oligarchy in France and Europe.”

Compare this with the uproar in the United States over Barack Obama’s much milder statement to “60 Minutes” in 2009: “I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of, you know, fat-cat bankers on Wall Street.” As Alec McGillis has reported, plenty of hedge-fund backers turned on Obama over that comment, and the White House has been doing damage control for years.

2) Very high taxes on the wealthy. Hollande has proposed subjecting all income above $1.34 million to a 75 percent tax. Melenchon, for his part, had been demanding a 100 percent tax on any income over $500,000 per year. That meant incumbent president Nicolas Sarkozy could stake out ground as the tax conservative in the race: Having already enacted a comparatively meager 4 percent surcharge on high incomes, he was content to propose a value-added tax and an “exit tax” on French citizens who moved abroad. Melanchon, for his part, wasn’t so worried about rich French people fleeing the country: “If they do, no problem. Bye bye.”

Here in the United States, meanwhile, there's a fierce debate over whether the top rate should stay at 35 percent or rise to 39.6 percent.