For the first time in France’s current political system, no candidate from a mainstream party has passed the first round of its Presidential election, according to a prediction by pollster Ipsos.
The projection, released an hour after polls closed on the first round of voting on Sunday, puts independent centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron in first place with 23.7 percent of the vote, followed by Marine le Pen from the far-right National Front on 21.7 percent.
In France’s electoral system, the two highest candidates proceed to the second round of the election. They will then face off in a straight fight on May 7, with the winner needing more than 50 percent of the vote.
According to Ipsos, leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon came joint third with 19.5 percent, alongside François Fillon of the center-right Republicans, also on 19.5 percent. Center-left Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon came a distant fifth on 6.2 percent.
The projections are based on actual votes cast, rather than polls: Ipsos took the first 200 votes from 500 polling stations, adjusted them for demographics, and extrapolated the overall result.
In previous contests the projections have usually been accurate, but the closeness of this race and late voting in some areas means they could still be wrong.
Polls closed before 7pm local time, and the result of the contest is expected before midnight.
Macron was written off as a sideshow when he launched his political movement En Marche! (onwards) just a year ago. But if the projections are accurate, his boldness will have paid off. Polls consistently put him well ahead of le Pen in the second round runoff.
If the projections hold, Le Pen will have topped her far-right party’s best-ever Presidential election result, when her father and party founder Jean-Marie le Pen reached the second round with just under 20 percent of the vote.
Fillon, originally the frontrunner, lost support after allegations emerged that he had misused public funds to pay his family to work for him. He denies wrongdoing.
The victor will replace Francois Hollande, the Socialist incumbent, who with approval ratings of around 16 percent is considered the most unpopular President since the Second World War.
Politicians across Europe and beyond have watched the contest closely, and it is seen as crucial for the future of the European Union (EU).
Both le Pen, who wants a referendum on France leaving the euro currency, and Melenchon, who wants to renegotiate EU rules on fiscal policy, take Euroskeptic stances. Macron, meanwhile, is strongly pro-EU.
Martin Schulz, a former president of the European parliament and the candidate for the center-left Social Democrats in Germany’s September federal elections, attacked what he called her “awful ultra-nationalism” at an event in Cologne, Germany on Sunday.
Even top American politicians have weighed in to the debate.
President Donald Trump has made no formal endorsement, but said le Pen was "strongest on borders, and she's the strongest on what's been going on in France."
Former President Barack Obama, meanwhile, also backed no candidate but granted a supportive phone call to Macron in the last days of the race, urging him to make every second of the campaign count.
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