The battle to become France's president comes down to a clash of two visions — Emmanuel Macron is pro-globalisation and pro-European Union, while Marine Le Pen rages against both. As the rival camps celebrated reaching the decisive second round of the election on Sunday, Le Pen said that voters will have "a very simple choice" on 7 May.
"Either we continue on the path of... off-shoring jobs, unfair foreign competition, mass immigration and free movement of terrorists... or you choose France and borders that protect," she told her supporters.
Macron, 39, had a starkly different message: "I will be... the voice of hope for our country and for Europe," he told thousands of his followers. The photogenic former investment banker, who had never before stood for election, started his centrist movement only 12 months ago.
Yet polls currently show he will easily become France's youngest ever president, beating Le Pen by more than 20 percentage points.
His meteoric rise began when President Francois Hollande chose him as an economic advisor and then parachuted him into his Socialist cabinet as economy minister.But shrewdly sensing his chance, Macron turned his back on Hollande when he quit the cabinet in August to concentrate on building up his own centrist political movement "En Marche" (On the Move).
French voters did exactly what they were expected to do — to the relief of French pollsters who helped redeem a profession still smarting over getting Brexit and the US election wrong. The final surveys published on the eve of Sunday's presidential election showed Macron and Le Pen qualifying for a run-off vote in two weeks' time.
Macron was projected at 23-24 percent with Le Pen at 22-23 percent — and those figures were in line with their final scores of 24.01 percent and 21.30 percent. It was the same success — forecasts that were within around one percentage point of their final results — for scandal-hit conservative Francois Fillon and far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon.
"There's a feeling of relief in the sense that polling groups have been under attack a lot during the campaign," pollster Yves-Marie Cann from the Elabe group admitted to AFP. Le Pen, who scored her best results in Sunday's presidential vote far from France's biggest cities, was carried to the run-off election by a part of the nation left behind in an era of globalisation. The results reflect the cleaving of France into two nations: cities reaping the benefits of global links on one side, and small towns and rural areas far from the busiest hubs of employment on the other.
It is these regions — marked by de-industrialisation, lack of jobs and the fear of a falling standard of living — that helped propel the National Front (FN) leader into the 7 May runoff against pro-European Union centrist Macron.
She won 28 percent of votes in her party's traditional bastion of the southeast and also did well in France's rust belt — scooping up 31 percent of votes in the northeast and 28 percent in the east. Elsewhere, she picked up support from those struggling to make ends meet.
Only once have French presidential pollsters failed badly in recent memory, Cann said: In 2002, when far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, father of Marine, stunned France and the world by making it through to the second round.
In the days ahead of Sunday's vote, "they successfully detected the late rise in turnout and indicated Emmanuel Macron in the lead and Marine Le Pen in second," said Anne Jadot, a political scientist at the University of Lorraine in eastern France.
High turnout helps
A combination of factors probably explains the French success after perceived American and British failures. French polls are constructed differently, with pollsters typically seeking out a sample of people who are chosen as being representative of the voting population at large. US and British pollsters often contact a random sample of voters by phone or internet.
Turnout for French presidential elections is generally high at around 80 percent, making voters easier to second-guess. High levels of abstentionism make an electorate more difficult to model. And French presidential elections are a simple process, with the winners in the first round being the two candidates who gather the most votes nationwide.
Macron and Le Pen will go through to a run-off on 7 May when one of them must get more than 50 percent, with Macron widely predicted to be the eventual victor. The American presidential system is indirect and far more complicated. Presidents are elected on the basis of votes cast state-by-state with the winner needing at least 270 votes from an electoral college.
Le Pen's support drastically drops in large cities such as Paris and Lyon, where she scored five and eight percent. Those are the places where Macron scooped up nearly a third of the ballots on his way to pulling in 23.75 percent of the vote.
"Macron-Le Pen: The two Frances" said the headline of Monday's Le Monde, in which "two nations confront one another, the rural areas that went overwhelmingly for Marine Le Pen and the cities that backed Emmanuel Macron."
Voters who backed the far-right leader feel she alone can put them back on the track to prosperity. "I think (politicians) don't realise how hard it is to live on middle-class wages," Carine Sayed, 30, a trainee beautician, told AFP. "If they spent six months making €1,300 ($1,400) they would see how hard it is for many French people nowadays."
"They don't know what we're going through," added Sayed, who lives about 40 kilometres (25 miles) south of Paris in Melun. Although Le Pen called it "historic", her result was tinged with disappointment after polls in recent months had put her at around 27 percent.
She was hoping to ride a wave of populist, anti-globalisation sentiment that helped sweep Donald Trump to victory in the United States and paved the way for Britain's vote to leave the European Union.
"In its new strategy, the National Front is no longer concerned with the right-left divide," said Joel Gombin, one of France's leading experts on the far-right. "It is exploiting a new dynamic of globalists against patriots, and successfully so, because the second round is a clash of these two ideologies.
However, he noted: "There is nothing to indicate that the FN can win on the basis of this divide."
How did the international media react
The results of the election made front page headlines around the world. Many newspapers noted that a likely win for Macron in the 7 May run-off would be good news for the European Union but warned that far-right rival Le Pen could still pull off a surprise victory.
'Le Pen threat not over'
Media in neighbouring Britain hailed pro-European Macron's strong showing while adding that Le Pen's second-place success should not be ignored. "The threat from the French extreme right is not over," the centre-left Guardian said, describing Macron as the "best hope of a deeply-troubled but great country". Similar caution appeared on the front page of France's leftist daily Liberation which ran a picture of Macron with the headline: "Just one more step." French communist paper L'Humanite had a picture of Le Pen with the words "Never" across it. "Let's rally together to block her way," it said.
The Financial Times predicted 7 May would be an "act of coronation" for him, but warned that governing would not come so easily, saying Macron could be forced into "hard bargaining" to implement his reform agenda. An opinion piece on America's rightwing Fox News website said Le Pen was still in with a good chance and referenced US President Donald Trump's shock win, saying: "She may pull off an even bigger surprise than the Tweeter in Chief. Yuge, in fact."
'A house divided'
Many papers pointed to the historic defeat inflicted on traditional parties, with the Wall Street Journal calling the vote a "stunning rebuke of France's mainstream political forces". "A huge leap into the unknown," wrote the French economic daily Les Echos which described the vote as an expression of people being "fed up to the back teeth with the 'system' (and) making a clean break with the past."
The BBC said France was "entering unchartered political water" and noted that whoever won the next round, the country was "deeply divided".
"Congratulations to the artist! Eight months have seen Emmanuel Macron stage his takeover bid in the world of politics," enthused Xavier Brouet in the regional French paper Le Republicain Lorrain, in a nod to Macron's business background.
The New York Times noted Macron's strange status as both someone who has set himself apart from establishment parties but who also hails from the political elite. "His profile is that of an insider, but his policies are those of an outsider," it said. "If the ever-precocious Mr. Macron is to succeed, his first challenge is to sell a product still largely unfamiliar to almost everyone: himself."
The international reactions to Sunday's vote
European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker congratulated Macron and wished him "good luck" in the run-off, Juncker's spokesman tweeted. "To see the flags of #France and the European Union greet the result of @emmanuelmacron, it's the hope and future of our generation," tweeted European Union foreign policy chief .
Michel Barnier, the European Commission's chief negotiator on Britain's withdrawal from the EU, hinted at concerns Le Pen could lead France away from the bloc. "Patriot and European, I will put my trust in Emmanuel Macron on May 7. France must remain European," the Frenchman tweeted.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia "respects" the result, and is "in favour of building good and mutually beneficial relations". Russia has appeared as a keen backer of Le Pen, who met President Vladimir Putin in a surprise visit to Moscow ahead of the vote.
Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman wished Macron "all the best for the next two weeks". "It's good that Emmanuel Macron was successful with his course for a strong EU and social market economy," Steffen Seibert said in a tweet. Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel expressed confidence that the 39-year-old would be France's next president.
"I'm sure he will sweep away the far-right, rightwing populism and the anti-Europeans in the second round," Social Democrat Gabriel said in a video posted on Twitter during a trip to Amman. Writing on Twitter, he added: "I'm glad that @EmmanuelMacron is leading the field. He was the only truly pro-European candidate."
The head of the Austrian far-right FPOe, Heinz-Christian Strache, congratulated Le Pen on her "historic success". "Europe's patriotic spring can celebrate another success and step forward... The old established parties and their discredited representatives will gradually disappear into insignificance all across Europe. They have been ruining Europe for years!" he said on Facebook.
Strache said that because "established French parties" were backing Macron, it would be a "wonder" if Le Pen won the second round.
Former Conservative finance minister George Osborne, recently appointed editor of London's Evening Standard newspaper, hailed a good result for the centre. "Congratulations to my friend @EmmanuelMacron. Proof you can win from the centre. At last, the chance for the leadership that France needs," he tweeted.
Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen expressed cautious optimism that former banker Macron would emerge victorious over Le Pen.
"Congratulations @EmmanuelMacron. We should await the final election, but Europe needs an openminded and reform oriented France => Good luck!"
Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende, whose country is not a member of the European Union, tweeted: "We need more not less cooperation in #Europe."
Geert Wilders, Dutch MP and leader of the anti-Islam anti-immigrant Freedom Party, swung behind Le Pen, welcoming the result as a "bright day for patriots in France and elsewhere who want more national sovereignty and less EU and immigration. "I have just sent her my sincere congratulations. Now on the way to a vigorous second round, I am hoping for a President Le Pen."
With inputs from AFP
Updated Date: Apr 25, 2017 15:35 PM