PARIS (AP) _ Conservative Nicolas Sarkozy holds an advantage over his Socialist rival Segolene Royal after the two advanced to the second round of France's presidential election, narrowing the vote to a choice between the tough-talking former interior minister or the first woman with a chance of becoming the country's leader.
Royal and Sarkozy planned rallies Monday night with an eye on voters who deserted the left and right in favor of farmer's son and lawmaker Francois Bayrou, who placed third on Sunday in one of the big surprises of the campaign.
Both candidates had scoffed at Bayrou, saying he would be incapable of forming a government with ministers drawn from left and right, or gaining a parliamentary majority. But with 18.5 percent of the vote, Bayrou won the support of voters who could hold the key to victory for Sarkozy or Royal when the French elect a new president in two weeks.
Bayrou's centrist Union for French Democracy has traditionally voted with the right in parliament and has often had ministers in conservative governments. But Bayrou the candidate drew leftists as well as conservatives to his camp, both Sarkozy and Royal need those votes back.
``The door is naturally open,'' Sarkozy's top lieutenant, Brice Hortefeux, said Monday on France-Inter radio, adding that he felt Sarkozy best embodies the values of the center. But he said that Sarkozy and his governing party, the Union for a Popular Movement, would appeal directly to voters, not to Bayrou's political apparatus.
With nearly all votes counted, Sarkozy had 31.1 percent, followed by Royal with 25.8 percent and Bayrou. Turnout was 84.6 percent _ the highest in more than 40 years and just shy of the record set in 1965.
Royal is the first woman to get this close to the helm of this major European economic, military and diplomatic power. Sarkozy would be likely to push his anxious nation toward painful change.
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.
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 relax labor laws and cut taxes to invigorate the sluggish economy, while Royal would hike 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.
Outside Socialist Party headquarters in Paris, her supporters chanted ``We're going to win!''
Sarkozy told cheering supporters Sunday night that by choosing him and Royal, voters ``clearly marked their wish to go to the very end of the debate between two ideas of the nation, two programs for society, two value systems, two concepts of politics.''
Despite his lead, the former interior minister faces a powerful ``Anything But Sarkozy'' push by those who call him too arrogant and explosive to run a nuclear-armed nation. He once called young delinquents ``scum,'' a remark that outraged the residents of poor neighborhoods and has dogged him politically.
Royal, a lawmaker and feminist who says she makes political decisions based on what she would do for her children, shot to popularity by promising to run France differently. But she has stumbled on foreign policy. In one gaffe, she praised the Chinese during a trip to Beijing for their swift justice system.
Many voters question whether she is ``presidential'' enough to run France.
Sarkozy should be able to count on votes from the far right, whose champion Le Pen suffered his second-worst showing in five presidential elections.
Royal's score was the highest for a Socialist since Mitterrand in 1988. But closing the gap with Sarkozy could be a struggle in round two. Candidates to her left together scored about 11 percent. They immediately swung behind her after their elimination, but their votes alone will not be enough to put Royal in power.
With results for the nearly 1 million French voters registered abroad still trickling in early Monday, turnout fell just short of the record of 84.8 percent for a first round, set in 1965. That year, modern France held its first direct presidential election, with World War II Gen. Charles de Gaulle and Socialist Francois Mitterrand reaching the runoff that de Gaulle went on to win.