PARIS — President Emmanuel Macron appeared to clinch the top spot in the French presidential election on Sunday, for the moment holding off a nationalist challenge that would shake global politics. But far-right leader Marine Le Pen’s close second-place finish sets up a competitive runoff election on April 24.
Macron, a centrist running for a second five-year term, faces a far tougher race than when he trounced Le Pen by more than 30 percentage points in the 2017 presidential runoff.
The latest polls of voter intention suggest he would now win by only four to six percentage points in a second round against her — reflecting dissatisfaction with his presidency, public concern about the rising cost of living and an effort by Le Pen to moderate her image.
Shortly after France’s public broadcaster released a first-round projection by Ipsos-Sopra Steria on Sunday night, Le Pen cited “two opposing visions for the future” of France that will be up for a vote in two weeks.
The second-round vote will be a “choice of society, a choice of civilization,” she told her supporters.
Macron — addressing a crowd of cheering supporters, many waving French and European Union flags — said he wants a France that is “part of a strong Europe,” and not a France that entails “decline for everyone.”
A Le Pen victory in the second round would mark the first far-right presidency in French history. It would also upend politics in Europe — replacing the most fervent advocate of E.U. cooperation with someone known for anti-E.U. rhetoric, and giving an official platform to the far right at a time when nationalists in many other European countries have been struggling.
Some defeated French candidates on Sunday immediately called on their supporters to vote for Macron in the runoff to prevent a Le Pen victory. Among them were the leftist candidates Fabien Roussel, Anne Hidalgo and Yannick Jadot, but also center-right candidate Valérie Pécresse, whose voters have in polls appeared particularly inclined to consider supporting Le Pen.
“Tonight, I am deeply worried: The far right has never been so close to winning,” said Hidalgo, the Paris mayor.
“You must not give a single vote to Madame Le Pen,” said Mélenchon, repeating the sentence several times.
In his speech, Macron appeared eager to capitalize on that momentum on Sunday night, thanking challengers across the political spectrum for their campaign efforts, and reaching out to voters who abstained or supported other candidates.
“I want to convince them in the coming days that our project offers a much more solid response to their fears than that of the extreme right,” he said.
Macron will have much convincing to do in the next two weeks.
“If you look at the reserve of votes, in principle Emmanuel Macron should win” the second round, said Vincent Martigny, a political scientist at the University of Nice. “But two-thirds of the French haven’t voted for him and the question is: What will he be able to say to those people?”
“Things can move very, very quickly now, as you could see over the last two weeks,” Martigny said.
Macron had been well ahead in the field of 12 official candidates, but the evaporation of a boost he got immediately after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, coinciding with a late surge of support for Le Pen, cast uncertainty over whether the centrist politician elected as France’s youngest president in 2017 could claim a second term.
While Macron performed above expectations on Sunday and better than in the first round in 2017, Le Pen’s result was also higher than five years ago, when she came in at 21 percent in the first round.
Six weeks before this election, it looked like Le Pen might not even collect enough signatures to get on the ballot. But she campaigned hard, portraying herself as a more moderate figure than in the past. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, she has distanced herself from Russian President Vladimir Putin and modified her hard-line stance on immigration to make an exception for Ukrainian refugees.
Macron, meanwhile, held only a single large campaign rally, didn’t engage in any direct debates with his competitors and didn’t deliver any of the big-vision speeches for which he is known.
Although it is not uncommon for French incumbents to avoid the campaign trail, that strategy may not have helped his reputation in the eyes of people who see him as an elitist politician out of touch with the concerns of everyday people.
Macron, as is his custom, cast his ballot on Sunday in the seaside vacation town of Le Touquet. Le Pen waited in line to vote in Hénin-Beaumont, a far-right stronghold and former coal mining town in an area that’s been particularly impacted by deindustrialization and unemployment.
At a polling station in Paray-Vieille-Poste, a suburb south of Paris, criticism that Macron’s campaign lacked sincerity was echoed by Sabrina Famibelle, 38, who said she voted for Le Pen on Sunday.
“Perhaps I could have changed my mind … and said in the end, well, why not Emmanuel Macron?” said Famibelle, whose parents are both from abroad. “But from his perspective, we don’t deserve his attention or to be convinced.”
Macron has also alienated left-leaning voters who opposed his shift to the right on issues such as national security and who were disappointed with his efforts to fight climate change.
Throughout the campaign, Le Pen largely avoided emphasizing her most controversial proposals and instead focused on echoing popular concerns about the economy and rising inflation. But in their substance, many of Le Pen’s positions are as radical as they were five years ago. This past week, she vowed to issue fines to Muslims who wear headscarves in public.
The campaign of her main far-right competitor, Éric Zemmour, played into Le Pen’s hands. Zemmour is a far-right provocateur sometimes compared to President Donald Trump and has been found guilty multiple times of inciting racial hatred.
“He’s so disrespectful” that Le Pen has increasingly appeared as relatively moderate to voters, said Vincent Tiberj, a researcher with Sciences Po Bordeaux. “But she didn’t move,” he said.
Zemmour, who finished fourth with 7 percent on Sunday, called on his supporters to vote for Le Pen in the second round.
The prospect of such a tight runoff has stunned some political analysts.
“It has surprised me, because it’s not very logical,” said Emmanuel Rivière, director of international polling at Kantar Public, a data analytics firm.
A relatively high number of French people, “43 percent, said they trust Emmanuel Macron as a president to face the main issues,” he said, adding that Le Pen’s past proximity to Putin should have damaged her position and helped Macron.
Rivière cited weakening resistance to the idea of a Le Pen presidency within parts of the electorate and a “very deeply rooted tradition of French voters firing the incumbent each time we have the opportunity” as potential reasons the second round is expected to be far closer than in 2017.
At a polling station near the Eiffel Tower on Sunday, 57-year-old Eric Tardy said he disagreed with the criticism of Macron. He voted for the incumbent because of his “satisfactory track record” and said he hoped Macron would continue to pursue the reforms he has launched.
But many voters on the left say they are disappointed with Macron and what they see as a rightward shift during his term. Mélenchon’s narrow third-place finish on Sunday was one the most visible signs of left-wing frustrations with Macron’s policies. The results also highlighted a growing fracturing of French politics into three camps: a strong far left, an emboldened far right and a center that’s embodied by Macron.
“Macron is going to try to seduce leftist voters — and the risk for him will be that it could seem very artificial, in a way that would upset or annoy leftist voters,” said Pierre Mathiot, the director of Sciences Po Lille.
The question of how to vote in the second-round scenario will loom large in the coming days. In Amiens, Macron’s hometown, which overwhelmingly voted for him five years ago, left-leaning voters were torn this weekend.
Marie Raoult, 61, said that while she wasn’t voting for Macron in the first round, she may support him in the runoff, but only “to prevent Le Pen.” Her final decision would probably depend on how close the two are in the polls, she said.
Leftist voter Claude Watel, 62, said he had already made his choice: He will cast a blank vote.
The “republican front” — a coalition of voters to stop Le Pen in 2017 — proved “not much of a barrier” in hindsight, he said. “Five years on, the far right is even stronger.”
Lenny Bronner in New York contributed to this report.