PARIS, France — Incumbent Emmanuel Macron will face far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen in a winner-takes-all runoff for the French presidency, after they both advanced Sunday in the first round of voting in the country’s election to set up another head-to-head clash of their sharply opposing visions for France.
But while Macron won their last contest in 2017 by a landslide to become France's youngest-ever president, the same outcome this time is far from guaranteed. Macron, now 44, emerged ahead from Sunday's first round, but the runoff is essentially a new election and the next two weeks of campaigning to the April 24 second-round vote promise to be bruising and confrontational against his 53-year-old political nemesis.
Savvier and more polished as she makes her third attempt to become France's first woman president, Le Pen was handsomely rewarded Sunday at the ballot box for her years-long effort to rebrand herself as more pragmatic and less extreme. Macron has accused Le Pen of pushing an extremist manifesto of racist, ruinous policies. Le Pen wants to roll back some rights for Muslims, banning them from wearing headscarves in public, and to drastically reduce immigration from outside Europe.
On Sunday, she racked up her best-ever first-round tally of votes. With most votes counted, Macron had just over 27% and Le Pen had just under 24%. Hard-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon was third, missing out on the two-candidate runoff, with close to 22%.
Macron also improved on his first-round showing in 2017, despite his presidency being rocked by an almost unrelenting series of both domestic and international crises. They include Russia's war in Ukraine that overshadowed the election and diverted his focus from the campaign.
With polling suggesting that the runoff against Le Pen could be close, Macron immediately started throwing his energies into the battle.
Addressing supporters Sunday night who chanted “five more years,” Macron warned that “nothing is done” and said the runoff campaign will be “decisive for our country and for Europe.”
Claiming that Le Pen would align France with “populists and xenophobes,” he said: “That's not us.”
“I want to reach out to all those who want to work for France," he said. He vowed to “implement the project of progress, of French and European openness and independence we have advocated for.”
The election outcome will have wide international influence as Europe struggles to contain the havoc wreaked by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Macron has strongly backed European Union sanctions on Russia while Le Pen has worried about their impact on French living standards. Macron also is a firm supporter of NATO and of close collaboration among the European Union’s 27 members.
Macron for months had looked like a shoo-in to become France’s first president in 20 years to win a second term. But National Rally leader Le Pen, in a late surge, tapped into the foremost issue on many French voters’ minds: soaring costs for food, gas and heating due to rising inflation and the repercussions of Western sanctions on Russia.
To win in round two, both Macron and Le Pen now need to reach out to voters who backed the 10 presidential candidates defeated Sunday.
For some of the losers' disappointed supporters, the runoff vote promises to be agonizing. Melenchon voter Jennings Tangly, a 21-year-old student of English at Paris' Sorbonne University, said the second-round match-up was an awful prospect for her, a choice “between the plague and cholera.”
She described Macron's presidency as “abject,” but said she would vote for him in round two simply to keep Le Pen from the presidential Elysee Palace.
“It would be a survival vote rather than a vote with my heart,” she said.
Le Pen's supporters celebrated with champagne and chanted “We’re going to win!” She sought to reach out to left-wing supporters for round two by promising fixes for “a France torn apart.”
She said the second round presents voters with “a fundamental choice between two opposing visions of the future: Either the division, injustice and disorder imposed by Emmanuel Macron to the benefit of the few, or the uniting of French people around social justice and protection.”
Some of her defeated rivals were so alarmed by the possibility of Le Pen beating Macron that they urged their supporters Sunday to shift their second-round votes to the incumbent. Melenchon, addressing supporters who sometimes shed tears, repeatedly said: “We must not give one vote to Mrs. Le Pen.”
Describing herself as “profoundly worried,” defeated conservative candidate Valerie Pecresse warned of “the chaos that would ensue” if Le Pen was elected, saying the far-right leader has never been so close to power. Pecresse said she would vote for Macron in the runoff.
To beat Le Pen, Macron will aim to pick apart her attempted rebranding as a less dangerous political force, a makeover that has even highlighted her love of cats.
Her softer image has won over some voters but made others even more suspicious.
Yves Maillot, a retired engineer, said he voted for Macron only to counterbalance Le Pen. He said he fears that her long-standing hostility to the EU could see her try to take France out of the bloc, even though she has dropped that from her manifesto.
“I don't think she's changed at all,” he said. “It's the same thing, but with cats."