Emmanuel Macron, Marine Le Pen advance to France runoff

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French centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen are advancing to the presidential runoff, after major opponents conceded defeat. (Thibault Camus)

Centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right populist Marine Le Pen advanced Sunday to a runoff in France's presidential election, remaking the country's political system and setting up a showdown over its participation in the European Union.

French politicians on the left and right immediately urged voters to block Le Pen's path to power in the May 7 runoff, saying her virulently nationalist anti-EU and anti-immigration politics would spell disaster for France.

The selection of Le Pen and Macron presented voters with the starkest possible choice between two diametrically opposed visions of the EU's future and France's place in it. It set up a battle between Macron's optimistic vision of a tolerant France with open borders against Le Pen's darker, inward-looking platform calling for closed borders, tougher security, less immigration and dropping the shared euro currency to return to the franc.

With Le Pen wanting France to leave the EU, and Macron wanting even closer cooperation between the bloc's 28 nations, Sunday's outcome after a wildly unpredictable and tense campaign meant the runoff will have undertones of a referendum on France's EU membership.

The absence in the runoff of candidates from either the mainstream left Socialists or the right-wing Republicans party - the two main groups that have governed post-war France - also marked a seismic shift in the French political landscape.

With 34 percent of the vote counted, the Interior Ministry said Sunday night that Le Pen was leading with 24.6 percent of the vote followed by Macron with 21.9 percent. The early vote count includes primarily rural constituencies that lean to the right, while urban areas that lean left are counted later.

Macron, a 39-year-old investment banker, made the runoff on the back of a grassroots start-up campaign without the backing of a major political party.

Defeated conservative candidate Francois Fillon said he would vote for Macron on May 7 because Le Pen's program "would bankrupt France" and throw the EU into chaos. He also cited the history of "violence and intolerance" of Le Pen's far-right National Front party.

In a brief televised message less than 30 minutes after the last polling stations closed, Socialist Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve also urged voters to back Macron "to beat the National Front and block its funereal project of regression for France and of division of the French."

Socialist presidential candidate Benoit Hamon, who was far behind in Sunday's results, quickly conceded defeat. Declaring "the left is not dead!" he urged supporters to back Macron.

Voting took place amid heightened security in the first election under France's state of emergency, which has been in place since gun-and-bomb attacks in Paris in 2015.

Macron supporters at his election day headquarters in Paris went wild at the polling agency projections, cheering, singing "La Marseillaise" anthem, waving French tricolor and European flags and shouting "Macron, president!"

Mathilde Jullien, 23, said she is convinced Macron will be able to win over Le Pen and become France's next president.

"He represents France's future, a future within Europe," she said. "He will win because he is able to unite people from the right and the left against the threat of the National Front and he proposes real solutions for France's economy."

Le Pen supporters were equally enthusiastic.

With a broad smile, Le Pen stood before an adoring crowd, said her National Front party will represent "the great alternative" to the French people and pledged to open a "much-needed" debate on globalization.

"We will win!" Le Pen supporters chanted in her election day headquarters in the northern French town of Henin-Beaumont. They burst into a rendition of the French national anthem, and waved French flags and blue flags with "Marine President" inscribed on them.

Polling agency projections showed Macron in the lead with between 23 and 24 percent support, followed by Le Pen with between 21 and 23 percent.
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