French President Emmanuel Macron and nationalist Marine Le Pen are heading for another winner-takes-all runoff in the country's presidential election, polling agencies projected on Sunday, as the fierce political rivals with sharply opposing visions for France pulled clear of 10 other candidates in the first round of voting.
If confirmed by official vote counts later in the day, the initial projections mean France is teeing up for a repeat of the 2017 head-to-head contest that turned the centrist Macron into France's youngest president — but there is no guarantee this time that the outcome will be the same.
Macron for months had looked like a shoo-in to become France's first president in 20 years to win a second term. But National Rally leader Le Pen, in a late surge, tapped into the foremost issue on many French voters' minds: the soaring costs for food, gas and heating due to rising inflation and the repercussions of Western sanctions on Russia.
The French election result will have wide international influence as Europe struggles to contain the havoc wreaked by Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine. Macron has strongly backed European Union sanctions on Russia while Le Pen has worried about their impact on French living standards. Macron also is a firm supporter of NATO and of close collaboration among the European Union's 27 members.
Macron, a 44-year-old political centrist, won by a landslide five years ago but he is bracing for a far tougher runoff battle on 24 April against his 53-year-old political nemesis. Le Pen is promising seismic shifts for France — both domestically and internationally — if elected as the country's first woman president.
The projections showed both Macron and Le Pen on course to improve their 2017 first-round showings, highlighting how French politics have become increasingly polarised. Macron was expected to capture a sizeable first-round lead of around 28 per cent support, ahead of Le Pen's projected 23 per cent-to-24 per cent of the vote. Hard-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon — one of half a dozen candidates on the left — finishing out of the runoff in third place, with about 20 per cent support.
After the projections were announced, Macron sought wide support, calling on those from both the mainstream left and right to rejoin his project and defeat the right.
''I want to reach out to all those who want to work for France. I'm ready to invent something new to gather diverse convictions and views in order to build with them a joint action,'' he said, vowing to ''implement the project of progress, of French and European openness and independence we have advocated for.''
For her part, Le Pen seemed to target Melechon's left-wing supporters in particular by promising ''social justice'' and fixes for ''a France torn apart.''
''The French people honored me by qualifying me for the second round,'' Le Pen said on Sunday night as she thanked her supporters and called on those who didn't vote for Macron to back her in round two.
Her supporters celebrated with champagne and interrupted her speech with chants of ''We're going to win!'' Yet some of her defeated rivals were so alarmed by the possibility of Le Pen beating Macron in the presidential runoff that they urged their supporters to shift their second-round votes to the incumbent. Melenchon, addressing supporters who sometimes shed tears, repeated three times that Le Pen shouldn't get ''one single vote''.
Describing herself as ''profoundly worried,'' defeated conservative candidate Valerie Pecresse warned of ''the chaos that would ensue'' if Le Pen was elected, saying the right wing leader has never been so close to power. Pecresse said she would vote for Macron in the runoff.
Pollsters suggest that just a few percentage points could separate the familiar foes in France's second-round vote, setting up a runoff campaign likely to be far more confrontational than round one, which was largely overshadowed by the war in Ukraine.
After Le Pen dropped off her blue ballot envelope in the northern town of Henin-Beaumont, she said ''given the situation in the country and in the world,'' Sunday's election outcome could determine ''not only the next five years, but probably the next 50 years'' in France.
In the 27-member EU, only France has a nuclear arsenal and a UN Security Council veto.
To beat Le Pen in the runoff, Macron must pick apart her years-long rebranding effort to make herself seem less extreme, a makeover that has even highlighted her love of cats. Macron has accused Le Pen of pushing an extremist manifesto of racist, ruinous policies. Le Pen wants to ban Muslim headscarves in French streets and halal and kosher butchers, and drastically reduce immigration from outside Europe.
Her softer image has won over some voters but has made others even more suspicious.
Yves Maillot, a retired engineer, said he voted for Macron only to counterbalance Le Pen. He said he fears that her long-standing hostility to the EU could see her try to take France out of the bloc, even though she's dropped that from her manifesto.
''I don't think she's changed at all,'' he said. ''It's the same thing, but with cats.''
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