French President Emmanuel Macron and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen to face each other in a runoff vote

France’s incumbent leader Emmanuel Macron and far-right challenger Marine Le Pen are heading for an April 24 presidential election runoff, projections showed after first-round voting on Sunday.

Partial official results put Mr Macron at 27.4 per cent in the first round of voting, with Ms Le Pen at 25.5 per cent after around 38 million votes were tallied.

The results set up a duel between an economic liberal with a globalist outlook in Mr Macron and a deeply euro-skeptical economic nationalist who, until the Ukraine war, was an open admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Ifop pollsters predicted a tight runoff, with 51 per cent for Mr Macron and 49 per cent for Ms Le Pen. The gap is so tight that victory either way is within the margin of error.

Who next holds the French presidency will depend on how those who backed Mr Macron and Ms Le Pen’s rivals cast their ballots.

Conservative candidate Valerie Pecresse, the Socialists’ Anne Hidalgo, the Greens’ Yannick Jadot and the Communists’ Fabien Roussel said they would back Mr Macron to block the far-right.

“So that France does not fall into hatred of all against all, I solemnly call on you to vote on April 24 against the far-right of Marine Le Pen,” said Ms Hidalgo.

Ms Pecresse warned of “disastrous consequences” if Mr Macron did not win the runoff.

“[Ms Le Pen’s] historical proximity with Vladimir Putin discredits her from defending the interests of our country in these tragic times… Despite my strong disagreement with Macron… I will vote for him in order to stop Marine Le Pen, “she said.

A close up of Marine Le Pen with blonde hair and closed-lip smile
Ms Le Pen says she wants to unite all of France.(AP: Lewis Joly)

But another far-right candidate, Eric Zemmour, will call on supporters to back Ms Le Pen, according to Marion Marechal, an ally of Mr Zemmour and Ms Le Pen’s niece.

To the cheers of supporters chanting, “We will win! We will win!”, Ms Le Pen said she wanted to unite all French.

“I intend without waiting to sew back up the tears that a torn-apart France suffers,” she said.

The runoff “will be a choice of civilization,” she said, adding that her platform would protect the weak and make France independent.

Macron seeking rare second term

Not for two decades has a French president won a second term.

Barely a month ago, Mr Macron was on a course to comfortably reverse that, riding high in polls thanks to strong economic growth, fragmented opposition and his statesman role in trying to avert war on Europe’s eastern flank.

French President Macron votes at ballot box
Mr Macron says France is at a decisive moment.(Reuters: Thibault Camus)

But he paid a price for late entry into the campaign during which he eschewed market walkabouts in provincial France in favor of a single big rally outside Paris.

A plan to make people work longer also proved unpopular, enabling Ms Le Pen to narrow the gap in opinion polls.

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