French independent candidate Emmanuel Macron and far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen are set to face each other in a runoff election on May 7.
Macron leads with 23.9 percent of the vote while Le Pen secured 21.4 percent votes. Soon after results started pouring in, French and European politicians began throwing their support behind Macron amid fears of Le Pen’s anti-European Union and anti-immigrant vision. Grandees of the established parties have also urgently called for an anti-Le Pen vote.
Le Pen is the first far-right leader since World War II to be this close to gaining power. However, according to polls, a majority of French people say the party represents a threat to the country’s democracy.
In a race that was too close to call up to the last minute, Macron, a pro-European Union ex-banker and economy minister who founded his own party only a year ago, was projected to get 24 percent by the pollster Harris and 23.7 percent by Elabe.
Le Pen, leader of the anti-immigration and anti-EU National Front, was given 22 percent by both institutes. Three further pollsters all projected broadly similar results.
Though Macron, 39, is a comparative political novice who has never held elected office, opinion polls in the run-up to the ballot have consistently seen him winning the final clash against the 48-year-old Le Pen easily.
Defeated Socalist candidate Benoit Hamon urged voters to rally behind Macron in the second round, as did senior conservative lawmaker Francois Baroin from the camp of defeated right-wing candidate Francois Fillon.
Harris gave both Fillon and far-left contender Jean-Luc Melenchon 20 percent, which will mean their elimination from the race.
Fillon had consistently been polling third in surveys leading up to the election. French senator and key Fillon supporter Roger Karoutchi told reporters: "The first indications are not good."
The result, if confirmed, will mean a face-off between politicians with radically contrasting economic visions for a country whose economy lags that of its neighbors and where a quarter of young people are unemployed.
That in turn reduces the prospect of an anti-establishment shock on the scale of Britain's vote last June to quit the EU and the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president.
Early indications from Reuters data showed the euro currency EUR= jumping to a four-week high around $1.09 in response to the early projections, from $1.0726.
Macron favors gradual deregulation measures that will be welcomed by global financial markets, while Le Pen wants to ditch the euro currency and possibly pull out of the EU.
Whatever the outcome on May 7, it will mean a redrawing of France's political landscape, which has been dominated for 60 years by mainstream groupings from the center-left and center-right, both of whose candidates faded.
Macron ally Gerard Collomb said the defeat of the mainstream center-left Socialists and the center-right Republicans showed a "deep malaise" in French society.
The final outcome on May 7 will influence France's standing in Europe and the world as a nuclear-armed, veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council and founding member of the organization that transformed itself into the European Union.
Banner/thumbnail credit: Reuters