By Mimosa Spencer, Tassilo Hummel and Ingrid Melander
PARIS (Reuters) -French leader Emmanuel Macron and challenger Marine Le Pen qualified on Sunday for what promises to be a very tightly fought presidential election runoff on April 24, pitting a pro-European economic liberal against a far-right nationalist.
With projections putting Macron in first place ahead of Le Pen after Sunday’s first-round voting, other major candidates admitted defeat. Except for another far-right candidate, Eric Zemmour, they all urged voters to back the incumbent in two weeks’ time in order to block the far-right.
Ifop pollsters predicted a tight runoff, with 51% for Macron and 49% for Le Pen. The gap is so tight that victory either way is within the margin of error.
In 2017, Macron won with 66.1% of the votes.
Le Pen, who had eaten into the president’s once-commanding 10-point poll lead in recent weeks thanks to a campaign focused on cost-of-living issues said she was the one to protect the weak and unite a nation tired of its elite.
“What will be at stake on April 24 is a choice of society, a choice of civilisation,” she told supporters, who chanted “We will win!” as she told them: “I will bring order back to France.”
Macron, meanwhile, told supporters waving French and EU flags: “The only project that is credible to help purchasing power is ours.”
Macron garnered 28.1-29.5% of votes in the first round while Le Pen won 23.3-24.4%, according to estimates by pollsters Ifop, OpinionWay, Elabe and Ipsos. Official confirmation was expected later on Sunday.
Conservative candidate Valerie Pecresse warned of “disastrous consequences” if Macron lost, while the Socialists’ Anne Hidalgo urged supporters to vote for him “so that France does not fall into hatred.”
“Not one vote for Le Pen!” added hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who, according to the estimates, placed third with around 20% of the votes.
But they all also had very harsh words for Macron and some of the very unpopular policies of his first mandate as well as an abrasive style that has put off many voters.
“Emmanuel Macron played with fire,” Pecresse told supporters.
And in a sign of potential troubles for the right, Eric Ciotti, from Pecresse’s party, said he would not back Macron.
Zemmour acknowledged disagreements with Le Pen, but said Macron was a worse choice.
MACRON WANTS RARE SECOND TERM
Not for two decades has a French president won a second term.
Barely a month ago, Macron was on course to comfortably reverse that, riding high in polls thanks to strong economic growth, a fragmented opposition and his statesman role in trying to avert war in Ukraine on Europe’s eastern flank.
But he paid a price for late entry into the campaign during which he eschewed market walkabouts in provincial France in favour of a single big rally outside Paris. A plan to make people work longer also proved unpopular, enabling Le Pen to narrow the gap.
Le Pen, an open admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin until his invasion of Ukraine, had for months toured towns and villages across France. She focused on cost-of-living issues troubling millions and tapped into anger toward rulers.
“Marine Le Pen knew how to talk to people about their more concrete problems. During the next two weeks he (Macron) will have to pay more attention to what is happening in France, take a diplomatic break,” said Adrien Thierry, a 23-year old Macron supporter.
A Le Pen victory on April 24 would be a similar jolt to the establishment as Britain’s Brexit vote to leave the European Union (EU) or Donald Trump’s 2017 entry into the White House.
The EU’s second-largest economy would lurch from being a driving force for European integration to being led by a euro-sceptic who is also suspicious of the NATO military alliance.
While Le Pen has ditched past ambitions for a “Frexit” or to haul France out of the euro zone’s single currency, she envisages the EU as a mere alliance of sovereign states.
(Reporting by Makini Brice, Tassilo Hummel, Sybille de La Hamaide, Michel Rose, Leigh Thomas, Hedy Beloucif, Gus Trompiz in Paris, Juliette Jabkhiro in La Villetelle, Mimosa Spencer in Sevres, Michaela Cabrera in Henin-Beaumont and Layli Faroudi in Bobigny; Writing by Ingrid Melander and Richard Lough; Editing by Jane Merriman, Andrew Cawthorne and Mark Porter)