STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep. Renee Montagne is back with us. Renee, welcome back.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Glad to be back, Steve. Thanks.
Let's begin with one of the most colorful European leaders, who is on the verge of losing his job. Nicolas Sarkozy has walked the world stage with his supermodel wife on his arm.
INSKEEP: And he's also been at the center of Europe's response to a financial crisis, but with his own country's slow economy and downgraded debt, Sarkozy did not finish first in last weekend's election.
MONTAGNE: He was second behind Socialist Francois Hollande, which means the two of them face a runoff on May 6th.
INSKEEP: And a far-right party, whose candidate finished third, may now be in a position to help swing the final result.
NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHANTING)
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Sarkozy supporters rallied around their candidate Sunday night in central Paris. Sarkozy, with 26 percent of the vote, came in a close second to Hollande's 28 percent. Never mind that no French president has ever lost in the first round of voting and gone on to win. Supporters like Marie Therese Malze say Sarkozy did well enough.
MARIE THERESE MALZE: We feel great today. We feel great, yes. We don't have the highest score we are expecting, but it will be for the second tour. A very good chance, for sure, for sure, yes. Marine Le Pen voters will join us. I'm sure. I'm sure.
BEARDSLEY: Malze is referring to far-right National Front Party candidate Marine Le Pen, who came in a strong third with 18 percent of the vote. The score set a record for the far right. Even Le Pen's father, who ran the party for 30 years, didn't do as well when he qualified for the second-round runoff against Jacques Chirac in 2002.
As Sarkozy addressed his party faithful, he was clearly already trying to woo Le Pen voters.
PRESIDENT NICOLAS SARKOZY: (Through translator) The French have cast a crisis vote. You are in anguish over jobs, securing our borders, controlling immigration and your families' security. I know that preserving a way of life in this fast-moving world is the main point of this election. I have understood.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)
BEARDSLEY: The campaign for the second round is on, and it will be a battle on the far right. Sarkozy desperately needs a large majority of Le Pen's voters to beat Hollande. But analyst Bruno Cautres with the Center for Political Research says he isn't sure Sarkozy can count on the National Front Party this time around because they voted for him in 2007, and he let them down.
BRUNO CAUTRES: Quite quickly, after the election of Sarkozy, they felt that they had been betrayed, that Sarkozy did not did what he was claiming that he was going to do. He got their votes, but did not deliver.
BEARDSLEY: He failed them on issues like immigration and a French-first policy, says Cautres.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)
BEARDSLEY: Leading up to the election, a group of Le Pen supporters handed out leaflets and campaigned for her in the French town of Vichy. They said they would never support Sarkozy in a second-round vote.
DAVID SALVAN: (French language spoken)
BEARDSLEY: We feel angry and betrayed, and we would never vote for him again, said David Salvan. We'll just put a blank ballot in the box.
A new poll out this morning projects that Sarkozy will lose to Hollande in the second round by as much as 12 percentage points. The president desperately needs Madame La Pen's backing if he is to have any chance of reversing that trend. Le Pen clearly savored her new position of power as she addressed her ebullient supporters.
MARINE LE PEN: (French spoken)
BEARDSLEY: The battle for France has only just begun, and nothing will ever be the same, she said. We have exploded this rigged, two-party system of elites.
Le Pen said that with Sarkozy's mainstream conservative party weakened, the National Front was now the only alternative to the left. Some analysts say Le Pen has no intention of supporting Sarkozy, and would rather see the left in power. Then she can attempt to lead the opposition and refashion the French right in her image.
Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.