French leader Emmanuel Macron and challenger Marine Le Pen qualified for what promises to be a very tightly fought presidential election runoff on April 24, pitting a pro-European economic liberal against a far-right nationalist.
With 96 percent of the votes counted for Sunday’s first round, Macron garnered 27.41 percent of the votes and Le Pen 24.03 percent.
In face of the results, other major candidates admitted defeat, and except for another far-right candidate, Eric Zemmour, they all urged voters to block the far-right in the second round.
But after five years in power in which his abrasive style has upset many, while Le Pen succeeded in softening her image, Macron will have to fight hard to win back disgruntled voters. He cannot take it for granted that voters will rally around a traditional anti-far right front.
“Nothing is decided, and the battle we will wage in the next 15 days will be decisive for France and Europe,” Macron told supporters, urging all voters to rally behind him on April 24th to stop the far-right from ruling the European Union’s second-largest economy.
Ifop pollsters predicted a very tight runoff, with 51 percent for Macron and 49 percent for Le Pen. The gap is so tight that victory either way is within the margin of error.
Other pollsters offered a slightly bigger margin in favor of Macron, with up to 54 percent. But that was in any case much narrower than in 2017 when Macron beat Le Pen with 66.1 percent of the votes.
Le Pen, who had eaten into Macron’s once-commanding 10-point poll lead in recent weeks thanks to a campaign focused on cost-of-living issues said she was the one to protect the weak and unite a nation tired of its elite.
“What will be at stake on April 24 is a choice of society, a choice of civilization,” she told supporters, who chanted “We will win!” as she told them: “I will bring order back to France.”
Macron, meanwhile, told supporters waving French and EU flags: “The only project that is credible to help to purchase power is ours.”
Following the announcement of the projections, Communist Party candidate Fabien Roussel, Socialist Anne Hidalgo, Yannick Jadot of the Greens and right-wing Republicans’ candidate Valerie Pecresse said they would vote for Macron to prevent the far-right leader from coming to power.
“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,” Hidalgo, who polled ninth with just under two percent of votes, said.
Pecresse also said she would vote for Macron, warning of “disastrous consequences” if he did not win the runoff. Melenchon urged his supporters to refrain from voting for Le Pen in the runoff.
“We know who we will never vote for … Not a single vote must go to Mrs. Le Pen,” he said at his party headquarters in Paris, stopping short of telling supporters they should back Macron.
Far-right candidate Eric Zemmour endorsed Le Pen, the only major candidate to do so. He acknowledged disagreements with Le Pen but said Macron was a worse choice.
Political Commentator Pierre Huski said that Le Pen might be disappointed with the projected results announced.
Huski believes the gap between the estimated votes of Le Pen and Macron makes the former a weaker challenger than she imagined for the second round.
“The next two weeks will be pretty hard for her as she has to face the president, who is good at debating, on a televised debate,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Five years ago, she lost [to Macron] because of the same debate.”
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.
However, he paid a price for late entry into the campaign, during which he eschewed market walkabouts in provincial France in favor 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.
A Le Pen victory on April 24 would lurch France, the European Union’s second-largest economy, from being a driving force for European integration to being led by a euro-skeptic 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 eurozone’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.