Centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right politician Marine Le Pen led the first round of voting in the French presidential election on Sunday, setting the stage for a May 7 runoff for the nation’s top job.
Though Macron, 39, is a comparative political novice who has never held elected office, new opinion polls suggest he could easily win the final clash against the 48-year-old Le Pen, Reuters reports.
In a victory speech, Macron told supporters of his fledgling En Marche! (Onwards!) movement: “In one year, we have changed the face of French politics.”
Conceding defeat even before figures from the count came in, rival conservative and Socialist candidates urged their supporters now to put their energies into backing Macron and stopping any chance of a second-round victory by Le Pen, whose anti-immigration and anti-Europe policies they said spell disaster for France.
In a race that was too close to call up to the last minute, Macron, a pro-EU ex-banker and former economy minister who founded his own party only a year ago, had 23.54 percent of the votes against 22.33 percent for Le Pen, according to partial figures from the Interior Ministry.
Seconds after the first projections came through, Macron told supporters at a Paris conference center: “I want to be the president of patriots in the face of a threat from nationalists.”
If he wins, Macron’s biggest challenges will lie ahead, as he first tries to secure a working parliamentary majority for his young party in June, and then seeks broad popular support for labor reforms that are sure to meet resistance.
Addressing the battle ahead, he declared he would seek to break with a system that “has been incapable of responding to the problems of our country for more than 30 years”.
“From today I want to build a majority for a government and for a new transformation. It will be made up of new faces and new talent in which every man and woman can have a place,” he said.
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