Le Pen steps down as Front National leader in bid to widen her appeal
Centrist Macron is criticised for celebration after first-round win
Marine Le Pen announced last night that she was temporarily stepping down as head of France's Front National party to widen her appeal ahead of next month's presidential election run-off.
The far-right candidate will face Emmanuel Macron, the centrist, on May 7 with the country divided as never before over Europe.
By distancing herself from the party founded by her father in 1972, Ms Le Pen hopes to reach out to potential voters who backed the eurosceptic and protectionist far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, and François Fillon, the defeated conservative, some of whose harder-line supporters could vote FN.
"I have always considered that the president is the president of all the French," she said. "Under this banner, he or she must unite all the French.
"Tonight, I am no longer the president of the Front National. I am the presidential candidate."
Ms Le Pen had already airbrushed out her party's name, and her own surname, from campaign posters to woo voters from the left and right, as well as in recent years "detoxifying" her party's racist, anti-Semitic image.
Sunday's first round upturned France's political landscape as candidates from the mainstream left and right were eliminated and the two finalists both claimed to be "anti-system" champions.
The final results saw Mr Macron, an independent centrist who created his movement En Marche! only a year ago, take pole position on 24.01pc, with Ms Le Pen of the far-right Front National second on 21.3pc.
Mr Fillon, the conservative runner, was a close third on 20.01pc, just ahead of Communist-backed Mr Melenchon on 19.58pc, while Benoit Hamon, the official candidate of the ruling Socialist Party, came fifth on just 6.36pc.
A startling electoral map of the country showed Mr Macron top in most departments, or counties, in the West, while Ms Le Pen was on top in most of the East. Ms Le Pen scored very highly in rural and so-called "peri-urban" areas. She has pledged to protect "forgotten France" from austerity, globalisation and immigration.
Mr Macron romped home in most towns and cities with more than 15,000 residents with his "neither right nor left", pro-European promise of modernisation.
"Emmanuel Macron attracted in his wake France that is doing well, an optimistic France, while Marine Le Pen has attracted the France that has been left behind by globalisation," said Adelaide Zulfikarpasic of BVA Opinion.
Mr Melenchon also fared well in some big cities, such as Marseille and Lille.
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Despite Mr Macron's plans to "relaunch" the EU, the combined scores of staunch eurosceptics Ms Le Pen, Mr Melenchon and nationalist Nicolas Dupont-Aignan add up to around 46pc of the vote.
For 'Le Monde' editorialist François Fressoz, the French have thrown out mainstream candidates in favour of a "new split" over Europe. The match over Europe would come to a head during a televised debate between the finalists on May 3. Ms Le Pen, who reached the second round promising to quit the euro and hold a referendum on EU membership, opened hostilities yesterday by calling Mr Macron a "hysterical, radical 'Europeanist'."
Europe's political establishment also rushed to back Mr Macron yesterday, arguing that it had "no choice" but to support the centrist Europhile over a candidate hell-bent on the bloc's destruction.
Putting aside convention, Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, announced support for Mr Macron against Ms Le Pen.
Meanwhile, Mr Macron was accused of acting as if he had already won the presidency after marking his first-round victory with a glitzy party in a high-end bistro.
The 39-year old centrist was denounced as "arrogant" by supporters of Ms Le Pen for inviting supporters, including Parisian celebrities, to the Paris eatery, where Champagne and oysters were served.
He also raised hackles for appearing with Brigitte Trogneux, his 64-year-old wife, on stage at an American-style victory rally reminiscent of JF Kennedy. "No male politician in the running for French president has ever dared this mise en scene (staging)," wrote 'Le Figaro'.
A Harris poll out yesterday gave Mr Macron good reason to be confident, suggesting he would beat Ms Le Pen by 64pc to 36pc in the run-off on May 7.
Even political allies expressed concern that his over-confidence would be wrongly interpreted in the French provinces.
Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet (43), a centre-right politician who has called for voters to back Mr Macron in round two to block the far-right candidate, said: "They are looking like it is a foregone conclusion, but it isn't a foregone conclusion."
His decision to invite guests, including actors, writers and philosophers, to the famous Rotonde restaurant in Paris's Montparnasse district without waiting for the second round was considered inappropriate by some.