PARIS: 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.
Macron garnered 28.1-29.5% of votes in the first round while Le Pen won 23.3-24.4%, according to separate estimates by pollsters Ifop, OpinionWay, Elabe and Ipsos.
That would set up a duel between an economic liberal with a globalist outlook in Macron and a deeply eurosceptic economic nationalist who, until the Ukraine war, was an open admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo, who polled ninth with just under 2% of votes, backed Macron. "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," she said.
Conservative candidate Valerie Pecresse also said she would vote for Macron, warning of "disastrous consequences" if he did not win the runoff. But rival far-right candidate Eric Zemmour will call on his supporters to back Le Pen, Marion Marechal - who is an ally of Zemmour and Le Pen's niece - told BFM TV.
Not for two decades has a French president won a second term.
Barely a month ago, Macron appeared near certain to reverse that, riding high in polls thanks to strong economic growth, a fragmented opposition and his statesman role in trying to avert war on Europe's eastern flank.
But he paid a price for late entry into the campaign during which he eschewed market walkabouts in provincial France in favour of a single big rally outside Paris. A plan to make people work longer also proved unpopular.
By contrast, Le Pen for months toured towns and villages across France, focusing on cost-of-living issues that trouble millions and tapping into anger towards the political elite.
'SCARED OF EXTREMES'
A more than 10 point lead Macron had enjoyed as late as mid-March narrowed and voter surveys ahead of the first round showed his margin of victory in an eventual runoff whittled down to within the margin of error.
"I'm scared of the political extremes," said pensioner Therese Eychenne, 89, after voting for Macron in Paris. "I don't know what would become of France."
The hard left's Jean-Luc Melenchon polled third on Sunday, with an estimated 20%, the projections showed.
A Le Pen victory on April 24 would constitute a similar jolt to the establishment as Britain's Brexit vote to leave the European Union (EU) or Donald Trump's 2017 entry into the White House.
France, the EU's second largest economy, would lurch from being a driving force for European integration to being led by a euro-sceptic who is also suspicious of the NATO military alliance.
While Le Pen has ditched past ambitions for a "Frexit" or to haul France out of the euro zone's single currency, she envisages the EU as a mere alliance of sovereign states.
Who next holds the Elysee Palace will depend on how those who backed Macron and Le Pen's rivals cast their ballots.
In past elections in 2002 and 2017, voters on the left and right have united to block the far-right from power.
However, surveys suggest that the so-called "republicain front" has crumbled, with many left-wing voters saying they are loathe to endorse a leader they deride as arrogant and a "president of the rich."
"We want change, so why not give her a chance (in round two)?" technician Alex Talcone said in the Paris suburb of Bobigny after voting for hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.