Paris — Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal advanced to a runoff in Sunday's presidential election, presenting France with a fundamental left-right choice between a conservative who could push his anxious nation toward painful change and a socialist who would be the country's first female leader.
Royal is the first woman to get this close to the helm of this major European economic, military and diplomatic power after a campaign marked by suspense, surprise and unusually dynamic candidates who lured voters to the ballot box in near record numbers.
Sarkozy has the advantage heading into the May 6 runoff. Results from the Interior Ministry early today, based on all polling stations except those voting in embassies overseas, had Sarkozy first with 31.1 percent followed by Royal with 25.8 percent. Turnout was huge at 84.6 percent - the highest in more than 40 years and just shy of the record set in 1965.
Either way, France will get its first president with no memory of World War II to replace the 74-year-old Jacques Chirac, who is stepping down after 12 years to usher in a new generation of candidates.
Sunday's first round of voting shut out 10 other hopefuls, from Trotskyists to far right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. Le Pen had hoped to repeat his shockingly strong showing of 2002 but instead finished a weak fourth with 10.5 percent.
Both Sarkozy, a Hungarian immigrant's son, and Royal, a military officer's daughter who beat Socialist heavyweights to win her party's nomination, are in their 50s and have traveled long, arduous roads to get to this point.
The winner's task will be tough: France is a troubled nation, still haunted by the riots by young blacks and Arabs in poor neighborhoods in 2005.
Decades of stubbornly high unemployment, increasing competition from economies like China's, and a sense that France is losing influence in the world made this a passionate campaign. Both Royal and Sarkozy have promised to get France back on its feet - but offer starkly different paths for doing that.
Sarkozy would loosen labor laws and cut taxes to invigorate the sluggish economy, while Royal would increase government spending and preserve the country's generous worker protections.
Royal, too, champions change but says it must not be brutal.
"I extend my hand to all those women and men who think, as I do, that it is not only possible but urgent to abandon a system that no longer works," she said.
The runoff offers "a clear choice between two very different paths," she said.