Pro-European Emmanuel Macron is set to face far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in France’s presidential run-off, results showed Monday, making him the clear favourite to emerge as the country’s youngest leader in its history.
Macron topped Sunday’s first round with 23.9 percent of votes, slightly ahead of National Front (FN) leader Le Pen with 21.4 percent, according to near-final results from the interior ministry.
They will contest the run-off on May 7.
“For months and again today I’ve heard the doubts, the anger, and the fears of the French people. Their desire for change too,” 39-year-old Macron told thousands of cheering supporters in Paris.
He pledged to unite “patriots” behind his agenda to renew French politics and modernise the country against Le Pen and “the threat of nationalists”.
The euro rose sharply against the dollar as fears of France pulling out of the single currency and the European Union (EU) receded following the breakthrough of Macron, the former economy minister under outgoing Socialist President Francois Hollande.
An ex-investment banker whose marriage to his former school teacher has fascinated France, Macron said the results were a clear rejection of traditional parties.
Neither candidate from the mainstream Republicans and Socialists made it through to the second round for the first time in six decades, in a stunning shakeup of national politics.
“The challenge is to break completely with the system which has been unable to find solutions to the problems of our country for more than 30 years,” Macron said, already eyeing crucial parliamentary elections in June.
The outcome capped an extraordinary campaign in a deeply divided and demoralised France, which has been hit by a series of terror attacks since 2015 and remains stuck with low economic growth.
Le Pen hailed a “historic vote” in front of her supporters, adding, “The first stage has been passed.”
Macron, who had never before stood for election and only started his grassroots centrist movement 12 months ago, will go into the run-off as the clear frontrunner.
New polls released Sunday evening showed pro-business Macron easily beating Le Pen, who has hardened her anti-immigration and anti-Europe rhetoric over the last week. The French vote was being closely watched as a bellwether for populist sentiment following the election of Donald Trump as US President and Britain’s vote to leave the EU.
Throughout the campaign, Macron insisted France was “contrarian” – ready to elect a pro-globalisation liberal at a time when right-wing nationalists are making gains around the world.
“It’s a victory for openness, social-mindedness,” Macron supporter Marie-Helene Visconti, a 60-year-old artist, told AFP at his election party where the EU flag was waved alongside the French tricolour.