Jacques Chirac, the Mayor of Paris, who fought a strong campaign and was expected to take first place easily, just held on to the second qualifying place for the run-off on 7 May. Edouard Balladur, the Prime Minister, was pipped by Mr Chirac and eliminated. But it was a strong vote in his Paris fiefdom which saved Chirac: he was defeated by Mr Balladur in the provinces.
While overall the night belonged to Mr Jospin, with 23.2 per cent of the vote, Mr Chirac - with just one in five first preference votes - is far more likely to become the next president of France. The result threatens to leave the French political scene scattered and confused, with no strong mandate for the next president and the increasingly menacing prospect of a thriving far right. French financial markets, open for a special late night session, took fright, and the franc fell to 3.57 against the mark, close to its historic low of six weeks ago.
The combined left-wing vote accounted for only 40 per cent of the total, while the right, including Mr Le Pen, scored 60 per cent. Most of those votes will go to Mr Chirac in the second round. An instant opinion poll last night suggested that Mr Chirac would win on 7 May by 53 per cent to 47 per cent.
Even so, the Mayor of Paris and his team were clearly shocked not to have come top of the poll yesterday.The last polls before the election gave Mr Chirac up to 25 per cent; his actual score, was 20.5 per cent. He appears to have lost ground in the last week, and his reliance on gaining a large proportion of the youth vote and seducing left-wing voters may have been misplaced. An abrupt Chirac swing to the right to harvest National Front votes is likely over the next fortnight.
Mr Balladur, on the other hand, did better than had been predicted, but conceded an hour after the polls closed.
In a dignified statement last night, he thanked his supporters, asked them to vote for Mr Chirac in the second round. Mr Balladur pleaded with centre-right voters to avoid the bitterness and jealousies which had handed the last two presidential elections to the Socialist Francois Mitterrand.
"I do not want to see again what happened in 1981 and 1988. I will do everything to avoid that," he said.
Mr Le Pen, by contrast, said he would not make his recommendation for the second round known until 1 May. The ultra-right National Front's strong showing startled political commentators, who had forecast that Mr Le Pen's popularity had peaked. Le Pen called it "a very great political success". His Number Two, Bruno Megret, said: "You are going to have to reckon with us."
Mr Jospin,appealed for those who really wanted change to vote for him in the second round. He said his first-round victory would restore hope and confidence to France, especially to the nation's young.
He fought a good campaign, proving a stronger contender than expected when he stepped into the vacuum left by Jacques Delors' decision not to stand.
But, despite his first place yesterday, his score was the lowest for any Socialist presidential candidate since 1969, a decline reflecting disillusionment with the last years of Francois Mitterrand's presidency.
The Communist Robert Hue maintained his party's position with a respectable 8.8 per cent, but the Trotskyite Arlette Laguiller attracted a wave of protest votes to get 5.4 per cent - more than double her score in the three previous elections. Dominique Voynet, who fought a strong campaign, was disappointed with her 3.3 per cent, confirming the difficulty of fighting on a Green ticket in France.
As well as the surge in the National Front vote, the right-wing, anti- Maastricht candidate, Philippe de Villiers won 4.9 per per cent. This was a steep fall from his 12 per cent in the Massatricht referendum but took the combined "hard right" vote to nearly 20 per cent.
The turnout yesterday was 80 pert cent, slightly down on the last presidential election in 1988, but more than predicted, given that the poll was taking place in the middle of the school holidays and the weather in many parts of France was bad.