Early election returns from France released Sunday showed President Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Francois Hollande nearly tied and advancing to the May 6 runoff.

With about 33 percent of the vote counted, Hollande had 27.5 percent of ballots cast and Sarkozy 26.6 percent, according to figures released by the Interior Ministry and reported by the Associated Press.

In a surprise, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen was in a strong third place with 19.9 percent of the vote so far. Leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon was fourth with around 12 percent, and centrist Francois Bayrou followed with 9 percent.

The BBC, citing projections, reported that Hollande would win about 28 percent to Sarkozy's 26 percent. Sarkozy would the first French president running for re-election to fail to win the first round since the start of the Fifth Republic in 1958. 

The estimates, based on votes counted in polling stations that closed early at 6 p.m., were announced by French media when all voting ended at 8 p.m..