France's incumbent President Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen are set to battle for the presidency in a runoff on April 24, according to the initial projections by four pollsters released after voting closed on Sunday.
Macron is predicted to have scored 28.1%-29.7% in the first round and Le Pen 23.3%-24.7%, with the top two candidates going through to the second-round runoff on April 24, according to projections by polling firms for French television channels based on a sample of votes.
The performance by Macron appears to be stronger than predicted by opinion polls in the run-up to the vote. Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon was predicted to come third with 19.8%-20.8% and extreme-right pundit Eric Zemmour at 6.8%-7%, with candidates of the traditional left and right trailing far behind.
Valerie Pecresse from the right-wing Republicans was at 4.3%-5%, in a disastrous performance by the party of ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy, the projections showed. Socialist Party candidate Anne Hidalgo was projected to face electoral doom with a score of just 1.8%-2.0%.
The final-round duel between Macron and Le Pen is however set to be far tighter than the runoff between them in 2017, when the current president thrashed Le Pen with 66% of the vote.
Although her opponents accuse her of being an extremist bent on dividing society, Le Pen has with some success sought to show a more moderate image and concern with voters' daily worries such as rising prices.
Macron by contrast campaigned relatively little, by his own admission entering the election campaign later than he would have wished due to the war in Ukraine.
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 proven 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 Macron was seen as gaining the upper hand in exchanges with a flustered Le Pen.
Macron 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.
This marks the third time that a far right candidate has made the runoff vote of a French presidential election, after Marine 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.
Voter turnout in the first round of the French presidential polls stood at 65% on Sunday, according to the Interior Ministry, indicating a decline below the 2017 election at 69.4%.
Analysts have forecast that turnout for the vote, in which President Emmanuel Macron is seeking a second five-year term, could be the lowest since 2002, injecting a high level of uncertainty into the race.
Voting started at 8 a.m. and will end at 8 p.m. when the first projections of results are expected.
France operates a manual system for elections: Voters are obliged to cast ballots in person, ones that will be hand-counted when the voting closes.
Unless someone gets more than half of the nationwide vote, there will be a second and decisive round between the top two candidates on Sunday, April 24.
Aside from Macron, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon are among the prominent figures vying to take the presidential Elysee.
Macron, a political centrist, for months looked like a shoo-in to become France’s first president in 20 years to win a second term. But that scenario blurred in the campaign’s closing stages as the pain of inflation and of pump, food and energy prices roared back as dominant election themes for many low-income households. They could drive many voters Sunday into the arms of far-right leader Marine Le Pen, Macron’s political nemesis.
Macron trounced Le Pen by a landslide to become France’s youngest president in 2017. The win for the former banker – now 44 – was seen as a victory against populist, nationalist politics, coming in the wake of Donald Trump’s election to the White House and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, both in 2016.
A 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 Zemmour made a stunning entry into the campaign last year but lost ground, and analysts say he has actually aided Le Pen by making her appear more moderate.