The results were given by a number of poll institutes at 8:00 p.m. (1800GMT), after all polling stations closed. Their surveys showed that the poll-favorite leftist Hollande topped the first round by gaining 28.4 to 29.30 percent of vote, followed by the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) candidate Sarkozy, 25.5 to 27 percent.
French socialist candidate Francois Hollande speaks at the celebration rally in Paris, France, April 22, 2012. French socialist candidate Francois Hollande and incumbent president Nicolas Sarkozy topped out in Sunday's first round of presidential election, entering the run-off held on May 6. (Xinhua/Frederic Boulant)
The far right National Front (FN) candidate Marine Le Pen took the third place by 18.20 percent to 20 percent, a much higher rate than previous polls given to her.
French law rules that if no candidate gains a majority of votes (50 percent) in the first round, the two highest-scoring candidates arrive at a run-off which is scheduled a fortnight later.
Earlier, pollsters predicted a narrow win for Holland in the first round of vote. Currently the exit poll results suggested that the PS hopefuls is the clear favorite over incumbent Sarkozy in the second round runoff on May 6 and could become the first socialist president in 17 years since Francois Mitterrand left office in 1995.
French voters gave a strong support to the Sunday's vote with 78.82 percent of the 44.3-million eligible electors casting their ballot in 85,000 polling booths, higher than the 73.87 percent in 2007.
Starting from 8:00 a.m. , lined up voters were seen outside of many polling stations. At a polling station in Saint-Ouen l'Aumone, Paris suburbs, dozens of aged people are streaming to cast their ballots.
Socialist Party candidate Hollande came to a polling station in Tulle, central France, where he has served as mayor from 2001 to 2008, to cast his vote at 10:00 a.m..
"I am attentive, engaged, and above all respectable. That's what the French vote for," he told reporters after voting, adding that the day was "an important moment."
The outgoing President Sarkozy was the last, among 10 candidates, to join the vote in the 16th arrondisment (district) in Paris accompanied by his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy before noon, waving to the crowds without making any statement.
French President and Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party's candidate Nicolas Sarkozy speaks at the celebration rally in Paris, France, April 22, 2012. French socialist candidate Francois Hollande and incumbent president Nicolas Sarkozy topped out in Sunday's first round of presidential election, entering the run-off held on May 6. (Xinhua/Gao Jing)
The exit poll results echoes voters response to give more supports to the Socialist Hollande against Sarkozy, who seeks a second five-year mandate despite being cornered by high unpopularity and rising criticism over a "failed" governing policy.
Khadija Ben Issa, a veiled 40-year-old woman said she voted for Hollande. "I want a new president who won't stigmatized immigrants and Muslims as Sarkozy did just to camouflage his poor political and economic policies," the French citizen of Algerian origin told Xinhua.
Disappointed with Sarkozy, Francoise Le Maite, a worker at a canteen, chose the socialists offer of change mainly on the right to retire at 60 years.
"Sarkozy has made mistakes, but I've traditionally vote for the right. Unfortunately, I think Hollande will win, because according to what I said, and according to surveys, he will win," said a voter to Xinhua. "The most urgent task for the president-elect is the management of the state," he added.
"Changes" has been the theme of Hollande's campaign and it proved to be the right choice shared by popular French people.
At a time when Sarkozy's chances to extend term crumbled on deep dislike of a gloomy economic situation, Hollande, described as a fine tactician and a skilled negotiator, gained impetus after proposing a 75-percent tax rate on profits above 1 million euros.
His proposals to restore the right to retire at 60 years and to renegotiate the European treaty to add provisions on jobs and growth are likely to blunt criticisms on whether he has the stature and the national security credentials to be president.
As the first round voting winners, Sarkozy and Hollande are set to resume their duel on April 27 with a series of campaign rallies, and a face-to-face television debate is scheduled for May 2.