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Macron edges ahead of Le Pen in French election, projections say

Centrist Emmanuel Macron is projected to finish ahead of far-right leader Marine Le Pen to qualify alongside her for 7 May runoff
Combination of pictures shows French presidential election candidate for En Marche ! movement Emmanuel Macron, left, and French presidential election candidate for far-right Front National party Marine Le Pen posing in Paris (AFP)

Centrist Emmanuel Macron will finish ahead of far-right leader Marine Le Pen on Sunday to qualify alongside her for the runoff in France's presidential election, initial projections suggested. 

Macron was projected to score 23-24 percent, with Le Pen at 21.6-23 percent, according to several polling institutes.

If the first-round result is confirmed, it would put the 39-year-old pro-Europe Macron within striking distance of the presidency.

He is on course to face eurosceptic, anti-immigration Le Pen in the 7 May vote seen as vital for the future of the ailing European Union.

Le Pen, the 48-year-old leader of the anti-immigration National Front (FN), hopes to capitalise on security fears that rose to the fore of the campaign after the fatal shooting on Thursday of a policeman on Paris's Champs Elysees avenue claimed by the Islamic State group.

Aiming to ride a wave of populism that carried Donald Trump to the White House and led Britain to vote for Brexit, Le Pen wants France to abandon the euro and also intends to call a referendum on withdrawing from the EU.

Observers predict a Le Pen victory could be a fatal blow for the EU, already weakened by Britain's "Brexit" vote last June to leave.

A polling station in the 15th arrondissement of Paris (MEE/Christian Maury)

Macron is seeking to become France's youngest president and has campaigned on a strongly pro-EU and pro-business platform.

Riding the crest of a worldwide shift away from established political parties, the former banker and economy minister formed his own movement, "En Marche" (On the Move), which he says is "neither to the left nor to the right". 

France's conservative presidential candidate Francois Fillon conceded defeat, endorsing Macron in the May runoff.

Alluding to a fake jobs scandal that dogged his campaign, Fillon, once the frontrunner in the race, said he had faced obstacles that were "too numerous, too cruel".

Declaring he would vote for Macron, Fillon said there was "no other option but to vote against the far right".

Defated Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon said the left had suffered a "historic drubbing" in the first round of France's presidential election.

While vowing that the "left is not dead", Hamon, who came in fifth according to projections, urged his supporters to vote for Macron in the run-off, in order to block the election of Le Pen.

Le Pen cast her ballot in Henin-Beaumont, a former coal mining town in northern France that has an FN mayor.

Macron voted in the chic northern seaside resort of Le Touquet with wife Brigitte, his former high school teacher who is 25 years his senior. Fillon and Melenchon both voted in Paris. 

Nearly 47 million people are eligible to vote in the eurozone's second biggest economy.

Most polling stations closed at 1700 GMT, with those in major cities shutting an hour later.

7,000 soldiers deployed

In the wake of the policeman's killing on Thursday, 50,000 police and 7,000 soldiers have been deployed around France to protect voters.

The terror attack was the latest in a bloody series that have cost more than 230 lives since 2015.

Guy Belkechout, a 79-year-old pensioner who was voting in the working-class Parisian suburb of Trappes, said he was concerned.

"Security issues influenced me after the attacks. Candidates who want fewer security measures, who want to reduce the police's powers, have not got my vote," he told AFP.

Analysts were divided over whether Thursday's attack would sway voters in a country that has begun to take the jihadist threat in its stride.

In the aftermath of the shooting, Le Pen called for France to "immediately" take back control of its borders from the EU and deport all foreigners on a terror watchlist.

"If it were to benefit someone, that would clearly be Marine Le Pen, who has dominated this issue throughout the campaign, or Francois Fillon," said Adelaide Zulfikarpasic of the BVA polling institute.

Hajaf Erhamani, a 39-year-old teaching assistant from the well-heeled Paris suburb of Sevres, said she was more worried about the economy and the slew of ethics scandals that marred the campaign. 

"You can't trust politicians these days. On the left and the right, they're stealing from us," she said.

Several voters told AFP they had voted tactically in a bid to keep the far right out of power.  

Tactical voting

Closely watched around the world, the French campaign has been full of twists and turns.

A race that began with the surprise nomination of Fillon as right-wing candidate in November shifted into higher gear in December when unpopular Socialist President Francois Hollande decided not to seek re-election.

Hollande's five years in office have been dogged by a sluggish economy and the constant terror threat.

After voting in Tulle, central France, Hollande said "democracy is stronger than all else," in a reference to the Champs Elysees attack.

Around the world, French expatriates were casting their votes. In London, three polling stations were providing for 93,500 registered French voters, according to Le Monde, resulting in long queues. 

Fillon was the early frontrunner until his support waned after he was charged following accusations he gave his British-born wife a fictitious job as his parliamentary assistant for which she was paid nearly 700,000 euros ($750,000) of public money.

Though there are four main contenders in the election, a total of 11 candidates are taking part. 

The candidate for the governing Socialists, Benoit Hamon, was a distant fifth going into the final weekend.