French polling agencies suggested Sunday that incumbent Emmanuel Macron and far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen are heading for another winner-takes-all runoff in the French presidential election, with their fierce political rivalry and sharply opposing visions pulling clear of a crowded field of 12 candidates in the first round of voting.

If confirmed by official vote counts expected later Sunday night, the pollsters’ initial projections mean France is teeing up for a repeat of the 2017 head-to-head contest that put Macron into power — but there is no guarantee that this time the outcome will be the same.

Macron, a 44-year-old political centrist, won by a landslide five years ago to become France’s youngest president.

But Macron is bracing for a far tougher runoff battle this time against Le Pen, his 53-year-old political nemesis who is promising seismic shifts for France — both domestically and internationally — if she becomes the first woman elected as France’s president.

The projections suggested both Macron and Le Pen were on course to improve on their 2017 first-round showings, signaling how French leadership politics have increasingly become polarized.

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French far-right leader Marine Le Pen casts her ballot in Hénin-Beaumont in northern France on Sunday. She is one of 12 candidates running for president. (Michel Spingler/The Associated Press)

The projections indicated Macron had a comfortable first-round lead on Sunday of between 27 and 29 per cent support, ahead of Le Pen, who is expected to capture 23 to 24 per cent of the vote.

The projections also suggested hard-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon — one of half a dozen candidates on the left — would fall short of the runoff, heading for third place.

France’s April 24 presidential runoff appears set to pit the centrist president seeking to modernize the economy and strengthen European cooperation against the nationalist Le Pen, who has sought to soften her party’s racist reputation.

Le Pen this time tapped into the foremost issue on many French voters’ minds: living costs that have soared amid the disruptions of war in Ukraine and the economic repercussions of western sanctions on Russia.

france presidential election
Voting station volunteers count ballots in the first round of the French presidential election in Strasbourg on Sunday. (Jean-Francois Badias/The Associated Press)

Pollsters suggest that just a few percentage points could separate the familiar foes in the second-round vote.

That nail-biting scenario sets up a runoff campaign likely to be far more confrontational and volatile than during round one, which was largely overshadowed by the war in Ukraine.

Not for two decades has a French president won a second term.

Barely a month ago, Macron appeared near certain to reverse that trend, riding high in polls thanks to strong economic growth, a fragmented opposition and his statesman role in trying to avert war on Europe’s eastern flank.

But he has paid the price for his 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 has also proved unpopular.

france presidential election
Macron’s supporters celebrate at his election night headquarters in Paris on Sunday. Macron will face a run-off vote against Le Pen on April 24. (Thibault Camus/The Associated Press)

By contrast, Le Pen has for months toured towns and villages across France, focusing on cost-of-living issues that trouble millions and tapping into deep-seated anger toward the distant political elite.

A more than 10-point lead enjoyed by Macron as late as mid-March evaporated, and voter surveys ahead of the first round showed that his margin of victory in an eventual run-off whittled down to within the margin of error.

Le Pen, in particular, has tapped into the foremost issue on many voters’ minds: living costs that have soared amid the disruptions of war in Ukraine and the economic repercussions of Western sanctions on Russia.

Significance beyond France’s borders

With its potential to reshape France’s post-war identity, especially if Le Pen wins, the election has wide international significance.

A Macron victory would be seen as a defeat for European populists. It might also not be cheered in the Kremlin: Macron has strongly backed sanctions on Russia, while Le Pen has worried publicly about their impact on French living standards.

france presidential election
Voters in Paris line up to cast their ballots in the first round of the French presidential election on Sunday. (Lewis Joly/The Associated Press)

After voting, Le Pen said that “given the situation in the country and in the world,” Sunday’s election outcome could determine “not only the next five years, but probably the next 50 years” in France.

In the 27-member European Union, only France has a nuclear arsenal and a United Nations Security Council veto. As Russian President Vladimir Putin keeps up his military’s assault on Ukraine, French power is helping to shape the European response. Macron is the only leading presidential candidate who fully supports the NATO military alliance.

In 2017, Macron trounced Le Pen by a landslide to become France’s youngest modern president. The win for the former banker — now 44 — was seen as a victory against populist, nationalist politics, coming in the wake of Donald Trump’s election to the White House and Britain’s vote to leave the EU, both in 2016.

With populist Viktor Orbán winning a fourth consecutive term as Hungary’s prime minister just days ago, eyes have now turned to France’s resurgent far-right candidates — especially National Rally leader Le Pen, who wants to ban Muslim headscarves in French streets and halal and kosher butchers, and drastically reduce immigration from outside Europe.

france presidential election
People in Marseille stand in line to vote during the first round of France’s presidential election on Sunday. (Daniel Cole/The Associated Press)

If Macron wins, however, it will be seen as a victory for the EU, which has shown rare unity of late in responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Observers say a Macron reelection would spell real likelihood for increased cooperation and investment in European security and defence — especially with a new pro-EU German government.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has afforded Macron the chance to demonstrate his influence on the international stage and burnish his pro-NATO credentials in election debates.

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