French President Emmanuel Macron was on course to beat far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the first round of France’s elections on April 10 by a larger than expected margin, with the rivals now set to battle for the presidency in a run-off later this month.
Projections showed Mr. Macron scoring 28.6-29.7% in the first round and Ms. Le Pen on 23.5-24.7%, with the top two candidates going through to the second round run-off on April 24.
Despite entering the campaign late and holding just one rally before the vote, Mr. Macron appears to have performed more strongly than predicted by pre-vote opinion polls and won immediate support from defeated rivals for the second round.
Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon was predicted to come third with 19.8-20.8%, while the candidates for France’s traditional parties of Government — the Socialists and the Republicans — were on course for humiliating defeats and historic low scores.
Far-right pundit Eric Zemmour, a political newcomer running for the first time, was projected to win 6.5-7.1%.
“It’s a new campaign that is opening now,” French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire said after the publication of the projections, which led supporters of Mr. Macron to erupt in joy at the candidate’s headquarters in Paris.
The final-round duel between Mr. Macron and Ms. Le Pen is expected to be tighter than the run-off between them in 2017, when the current President thrashed Ms. Le Pen with 66% of the vote.
Ms. Le Pen, bidding to be France’s first ever woman President, looked on course for a higher first-round score than in 2017 when she won 21.3%, and she will be able to pick up most of Mr. Zemmour’s votes in the second round.
“I will put France in order within five years,” she told her supporters in Paris, urging “all those who did not vote for Emmanuel Macron” in the first round to back her in the second.
Mr. Zemmour, who called each of his two million votes “a cry from a people that does not want to die”, urged his supporters to back Ms. Le Pen.
But in a boost for Mr. Macron, he swiftly won the support of the defeated Socialist, Communist, Green and traditional right-wing candidates in the second round.
Mr. Melenchon urged his supporters to refrain from voting for Ms. Le Pen, but did nor issue a call to back Mr. Macron.
Some 48.7 million voters were eligible to vote in the election after an unusual campaign overshadowed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The projections are compiled by polling companies based on a sample of votes from polling stations especially chosen from across the country. They have generally proved to be highly accurate in past elections.
A pivotal moment in the next stage of the campaign is likely to come on April 20 when the two candidates are set to take part in a TV debate broadcast live on national television.
The final debate has in the past had a crucial impact on the outcome of the vote such as in 2017 when Mr. Macron was seen as gaining the upper hand in exchanges with a flustered Ms. Le Pen.
The 44-year-old is expected for the next two weeks to put his diplomatic efforts on the Ukraine crisis to one side and focus more whole-heartedly on campaigning in a bid to find the election momentum that has so far eluded his team.
Although her opponents accuse her of being an extremist bent on dividing society, Ms. Le Pen has sought to project a more moderate image in this campaign and has focused on voters’ daily worries over rising prices.
But Mr. Macron is expected to target her past proximity with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, her plans to radically change the functioning of the European Union, as well as the cost of her economic programme that includes massive tax cuts.
Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist Mayor of Paris, was set for an estimated 1.8-2.0%, a historic low for the Socialists who were in power just five years ago under President Francois Hollande.
Greens candidate Yannick Jadot was seen winning 4.4-5.0% and right-wing Republicans candidate Valerie Pecresse was projected to score an estimated 4.3-5%.
This marks the third time that a far-right candidate has made the run-off vote of a French Presidential election, after Marine Ms. Le Pen’s campaign in 2017 and the breakthrough by her father Jean-Marie in 2002 that shocked France, although he was ultimately defeated by Jacques Chirac.
Pollsters forecast that final turnout would be around 76-74%, down on 2017, though likely above the record-low turnout of just under 73% in the first round in 2002.
The stakes are high for Mr. Macron, who came to power aged 39 as France’s youngest President with a pledge to shake up the country.
He would be the first French President to win a second term since Jacques Chirac in 2002.
If he does, he would have five more years to push through reforms that would include raising the pension age to 65 from 62, in the teeth of union opposition.
He would also seek to consolidate his number-one position among European leaders after the departure of German chancellor Angela Merkel.
A Ms. Le Pen victory would be seen as a triumph for right-wing populism, adding to election victories last weekend by Hungarian Premier Viktor Orban and Serbian leader Aleksandar Vucic, who both have cordial ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Far-right former TV pundit Mr. Zemmour made a stunning entry into the campaign last year but has since lost ground.
Analysts say he has actually helped Ms. Le Pen by making her appear more moderate.