Macron holds future of Europe in his hands
Centrist candidate will battle Le Pen for French presidency
Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen will fight for the French presidency after the country's two main parties crashed out of the first round for the first time since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958.
In a seismic shift in French politics, estimations from partial results put Mr Macron, an independent centrist, top on 24pc, with Ms Le Pen, the far-Right Front National leader, closely behind on just under 22pc.
Conservative Francois Fillon, dubbed the "Thatcherite" candidate, was heading for elimination on 19.9pc, with revolutionary Leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon projected to come fourth. The Socialist Party's official candidate Benoit Hamon came sixth with a paltry 6.2pc of the vote, meaning the two major French parties mustered less than 27pc of the vote.
The two finalists offer France very different visions of Europe and the world, with Mr Macron billing himself as the progressive versus conservatives, and Ms Le Pen as the patriot versus the globalists. On Europe, he wants to further beef up the eurozone, while Ms Le Pen intends to leave the euro and hold an in-out referendum on EU membership within six months of taking power.
Most of the defeated contenders instantly called on their supporters to vote for Mr Macron, with Mr Fillon warning that Ms Le Pen would lead France "to ruin and European chaos". "Extremism can only bring misfortune and division to France," he said. Mr Hamon did likewise, saying: "I make a distinction between a political adversary and an enemy of the Republic."
There was relief in the markets as the results from the first round came placing pro-EU Mr Macron in the lead, with the euro jumping 2pc on the day.
From his Paris headquarters, an ecstatic Mr Macron (39), a former investment banker and economy minister, said: "We are clearly turning a page of French political life."
His pole position vindicated his huge bet to leave the government of Socialist president Francois Hollande a year ago to found his own movement, En Marche! (Onwards!), on a "neither Left nor Right" platform.
Many predicted the bid by a political novice who has never held elected office would burst like a bubble of champagne Socialism.
Polls suggest he will beat Ms Le Pen in the runoff, taking around 60pc of the vote. She had been banking on first place to create enough momentum to upset such predictions.
Speaking from her stronghold in Henin Beaumont, a former mining town in northern France which has an FN mayor, Ms Le Pen insisted: "The first step that will lead the French to the Elysee has been taken."
"Either we continue on the path of total de-regulation, offshoring, mass immigration, free movement of terrorists, the reign of big money. Or you choose the France of borders that protects your identity," she said. "It is time to liberate the French people."
This was an election the mainstream centre-Right Republicains party thought it couldn't lose. But Mr Fillon, the early favourite, never recovered from the disclosure that he used around €800,000 of taxpayers' money to employ his British wife and children, and suspicions he broke rules on donations by accepting a gift of two suits worth a total of €13,000.
"This defeat was mine and mine alone. I take full responsibility," said Mr Fillon. His defeat rules out the prospect of presidential immunity from prosecution; both he and his wife face charges over misuse of public funds.
Amid fears of a power struggle between hard-Right supporters of ex-French president Nicolas Sarkozy and those closer to Alain Juppe, the moderate former prime minister, Mr Fillon urged them to remain united ahead of legislative elections in June.
While Mr Hamon insisted his paltry score did not spell the "death of the Left", their demise looks imminent.
Mr Macron has already won over several heavyweight reformist Socialists, including ex-prime minister Manuel Valls. But he has attracted few from the Right. The big question remains whether more will now join him and if he can go on to win a parliamentary majority should he come top. (© Daily Telegraph, ,London)