Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen has announced she is temporarily stepping down as leader of the Front National (FN) to concentrate on her presidential bid.
Ms Le Pen said she was taking “a leave of absence” from leading the FN to focus on campaigning, in a move that appeared to be a mere formality that changes nothing in her campaign platform.The move does seem aimed as a way of embracing a wider range of voters ahead of her runoff against centrist Emmanuel Macron.
She told France 2 television: “I will feel more free and above all, above party politics, which I think is important.”
Ms Le Pen has said for months she is not, strictly speaking, an FN candidate but a candidate backed by the FN. She has long distanced herself from her maverick father Jean-Marie, the former FN leader, and in the election campaign has put neither her party's name nor its trademark flame logo on her posters.
She has repeatedly said the policy platform on which she has stood is hers and not reflective of the FN.
"Tonight, I am no longer the president of the National Front. I am the presidential candidate," Ms Le Pen said on French public television news.
Ms Le Pen had previously attempted to clean up the party’s racist and anti-Semitic image as she tried to appeal to voters on both the left and the right.
Final results from the French presidential election's first round showed that Mr Macron got nearly one million more votes than Ms Le Pen. Mr Macron collected 8.66 million votes, or 24.01 per cent, while Ms Le Pen garnered 7.68 million votes, or 21.30 per cent, according to the official final count published by the Interior Ministry.
For Ms Le Pen, it is the best result ever achieved by her FN party in a French presidential election.
Conservative candidate Francois Fillon got 20.01 per cent, and left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, 19.58 percent of the vote. The other seven candidates were far behind.
The final round of voting for the French Presidency will take place on 7 May, and Mr Macron is currently thought to be the favourite.
Opening the battle for second-round votes, Ms Le Pen highlighted the continuing threat of Islamist militancy, which has claimed more than 230 lives in France since 2015, saying the 39-year-old Mr Macron was “to say the least, weak” on the issue.
She also said she wanted to talk to sovereignist Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, who won nearly five per cent of the first-round vote and has not said which side he would take in the next.
“His platform is extremely close to ours. Patriots should come together to fight those who promote unbridled globalisation,” she said.
Ms Le Pen has promised to suspend the EU's open-border agreement on France's frontiers and expel foreigners who are on the watch lists of intelligence services.
Mr Macron's internal security programme calls for 10,000 more police officers, and 15,000 new prison places, and he has recruited a number of security experts to his entourage.
However, opinion polls over the course of the campaign have consistently found voters were more concerned about the economy and the trustworthiness of politicians.
Ms Le Pen's campaign took aim on Monday at what they see as further weak spots: Mr Macron's previous job as an investment banker and his role as a deregulating economy minister under outgoing President Francois Hollande.
As for Mr Hollande, he has urged people to back Mr Macron, saying Ms Le Pen, represented a “risk” for France.
Opinion polls indicate that the business-friendly Mr Macron, who has never held elected office, will take at least 61 percent of the vote against Ms Le Pen after two defeated rivals pledged to back him to thwart her eurosceptic, anti-immigrant platform.
Mr Hollande, a Socialist nearing the end of five years of unpopular rule, threw his weight behind his former economy minister in a televised address, saying Ms Le Pen's policies were divisive and stigmatised sections of the population.
“The presence of the far right in the second round is a risk for the country,” he said. “What is at stake is France's make-up, its unity, its membership of Europe and its place in the world.”
Agencies contributed to this report