France’s far-right leader Marine Le Pen will face a relative novice, the independent centrist Emmanuel Macron, in the final round of the country’s presidential election, early projections suggest.
According to estimates from CNN affiliate BFMTV and polling company Elabe, newcomer Macron secured 24% of the vote, with National Front leader Le Pen close behind on 21.8%.
The result, if confirmed, is a comprehensive rejection of traditional French politics. Neither candidate hails from the establishment parties that have dominated France for decades.
BFMTV and Elabe suggest scandal-hit conservative François Fillon and far-left wildcard Jean-Luc Mélenchon won 19.9% and 19.3% of the vote respectively, and have been knocked out of the closely-fought race.
Speaking to supporters in Henin-Beaumont, anti-immigration, anti-European Union candidate Le Pen hailed the result: “It is time to free French people from arrogant elites … I am the people’s candidate.”
“The French people must seize this opportunity, because the enormous challenge of this election is the wild globalization that puts our civilization at risk,” Le Pen said.
“Either we continue to disintegrate without any borders, without any controls, unfair international competition, mass immigration and the free circulation of terrorists, or you choose France with borders,” she added.
French presidential candidate for the En Marche! movement Emmanuel Macron shakes hands with supporters after casting his vote in Le Touquet.
A huge cheer went up at Macron’s campaign headquarters as news of the results came through. “France’s political map is tonight redrawn,” said CNN’s Melissa Bell, who was at the scene.
Sunday’s first round contest was held under tight security after a terror attack in Paris Thursday night disrupted the final day of campaigning Friday.
By 5 p.m. local time (11 a.m. ET) 69.42% of France’s 47 million registered voters had cast their ballots, according to the Interior Ministry — a marginally lower turnout than at the same point in 2012.
With 11 names on the ballot, no one candidate had been expected to win an outright majority; instead the top two candidates will face a second and final ballot on May 7.
The incumbent President, socialist François Hollande, whose approval ratings have remained in the doldrums for several years, made the unusual decision not to run for a second term.
As the results became clear, French politicians and several of the defeated candidates appeared to throw their support behind Macron — or to speak out against Le Pen.
Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve tweeted an appeal to all voters to back Macron in the second round, “to combat the National Front’s disastrous project to take France backwards and to divide the French people.”
The Socialist Party’s candidate, Benoît Hamon secured just 6.3% of the vote, according to BFMTV-Elabe estimates.
Speaking at his campaign headquarters, Hamon said he took full responsibility for the poor result, and urged his supporters to vote for Macron to defeat Le Pen in the second round, “even if he is not left-wing.”
Fillon, the mainstream Republican candidate, was an early favorite for the presidency, but his campaign stumbled because of a scandal over claims he paid his wife and children for work they did not do. He denies any wrongdoing.
He told his supporters, “we have to choose what is preferable for our country, and I am not going to rejoice. Abstention is not in my genes, especially when an extremist party is close to power.”
“The party created by Jean-Marie Le Pen has a history known for its violence and intolerance,” Fillon said. “Its economic and social program will lead our country to failure … I promise you, extremism can only bring unhappiness and division to France.”
Independent centrist Macron, 39, a former banker, has never held elected office, though he served as economy minister under Prime Minister Manuel Valls.
But he attracted support from left and right with promises to boost the economy and improve security. His party, “En Marche!” which was only created in September, now has more than 200,000 members and his meetings have attracted vast crowds.
Far-right National Front leader Le Pen, 48, is best known for her anti-immigration rhetoric; she told supporters her first move as president would be to impose a temporary ban on legal immigration to France. She has also vowed to take France out of the EU.
Far-left firebrand Mélenchon has so far refused to concede defeat, insisting it is too early to accept the results.
“We do not recognize the score announced on the basis of opinion polls,” he wrote on Facebook. “The results of the larger towns and cities are not yet known,” he added, calling for “restraint” and urging commentators to
Mélenchon’s popularity surged in the final weeks of the race, following impressive performances in the candidates’ television debates.