Centrist Macron, populist Le Pen advance in French election that has consequences for Europe

Far-right populist Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron claimed victory in today’s first-round vote in the French presidential election.

Besting nine other candidates, the two will now face off in a second and final round on May 7.

Celebrating his advancement, Macron addressed supporters in Paris, in a speech that called for unity and reiterated his support for the European Union.

“The deep seated feeling, age old feeling that has always pushed our people forward, the commitment to our country, the collective interest over division, this is what has won tonight,” he said as a sea of supporters waved French flags. “This election has opened the door to optimism, to a new path to hope for Europe for the world.”

With his words, he drew a sharp contrast with his opponent, who has floated the idea of referendum — dubbed “Frexit” — on whether to leave or remain in the E.U.

Favored to win the second-round, Macron — a 39-year-old former government minister who has never held elected office — was quick to cast himself as a political outsider, saying, “I have heard your expectations, for true change, for true democracy,” and urged his voters to “start writing a whole new page in the political history of our country.”

Le Pen, who appears to have come in second place, according to exit polls, said that the victory was an “honor” that she received “with humility and gratitude.”

“From now on I have an immense responsibility of defending the French nation, its unity, its culture and its independence,” she said. “The French must take advantage of this historical opportunity offered to them, because what is at stake here is the wild type of globalization endangering our civilization.”

“The survival of France,” was at stake in the second-round vote, she said.

She took shots at the European Union and sitting President François Hollande during her speech, before concluding and leading her supporters in singing the French national anthem.

Reports suggested that protesters in Paris have clashed with police in demonstrations against Le Pen’s victory.

Sunday’s result marked the first time that no major-party candidate would contest the second-round vote.

“This is still an anti-establishment outcome, even though Macron represents a centrist platform,” Erik Brattberg, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Europe Program, told ABC News. “Worth watching now is whether other French politicians will be rallying around Macron to defeat Le Pen in second round.”

François Fillon, the conservative candidate who appears to have come in third place, conceded defeat, saying: “There is no other choice than to vote against the extreme right. Therefore I am voting for Emmanuel Macron.”

After the initial exit polls were announced, the country’s prime minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, called on voters to support Emmanuel Macron and reject Le Pen in the next round, according to The Associated Press.

French voters were going to the polls for a first-round vote to choose their next president from among 11 candidates, including Le Pen, who opposes immigration and has voiced skepticism about France’s membership in the European Union.

Pre-election polls suggested Le Pen and Macron, an independent centrist and former economy minister, were in the lead.

“Le Pen did as expected. There was no hidden Le Pen vote in the first round. While she can get more votes in a second round with only one opponent, she has likely reached a ceiling among her core voters,” Brattberg predicted.

Leading up to the vote, Fillon, a former prime minister embroiled in a scandal over alleged fake jobs given to his wife and children, appeared to be closing the gap in recent days, as was far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.

“A last-minute push by Fillon and far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon was not enough to get them into the run-off,” Philip Crowther, a correspondent for France 24 in Washington, told ABC News. “This result is a disaster for France’s main two parties — the conservative Republican party and the Socialist party.”

The election is seen as a litmus test for the future of the European Union and the spread of populism around the world.

More than 50,000 police and gendarmes were deployed to protect 66,000 polling stations for the election, which comes just three days after a deadly attack on Paris’s famed Avenue des Champs-Elysees in which a police officer and a gunman were slain.

The presidential poll has consequences for the future of the European Union, for France’s millions of Muslims and for world financial markets. It’s also the first ever to be held while France is under a state of emergency, put in place since the November 2015 attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead.

President Trump said this week that he believed Le Pen was “the strongest on what’s been going on in France,” while former President Barack Obama called to wish Macron well in the poll.

Neither Trump nor Obama said he was making a formal endorsement.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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