Emmanuel Macron will go head-to-head against Marine Le Pen in the run-off election for French president on May 7 after qualifying in Sunday’s first round vote.
Mr Macron, an independent centrist, came out on top with 23.7 per cent of the vote ahead of Ms Le Pen, the far-right leader, on 21-22 per cent, according to three estimates for French media based on partial results.
François Fillon, a conservative former prime minister whose campaign was overshadowed by corruption charges, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a hard-left firebrand who surged in the polls in the final weeks of the campaign, both won 19 per cent.
Qualification in first place is an extraordinary achievement for Mr Macron, a 39 year-old former Rothschild banker who has never held elected office.
“A page of France’s political history has been turned,” Mr Macron told Agence France-Presse from a victory rally in south-west Paris.
His win will delight other EU capitals despite the prospect of a charged second-round campaign in which French voters will be asked to choose between radically different visions of France and its place in the world.
Opinion polls conducted before the first-round vote suggested Mr Macron would have a wider margin of victory than the two other frontrunners over the strongly anti-EU Ms Le Pen.
Senior figures from the defeated Socialist party and centre-right Republicans were quick to call on their supporters to vote for Mr Macron for the run-off in two weeks.
Mr Fillon, the defeated Republican candidate, said he too would vote for Mr Macron: “Extremism can only bring misfortune and division to France. There is no other choice but to vote against the extreme right.”
Alain Juppé, the mayor of Bordeaux and one-time centre-right presidential hopeful, spoke of the new frontrunner in glowing terms: “I expect Emmanuel Macron to restore France’s standing on the European and world stage and for him to give French youth hope of a new world.”
Barely a year after setting up a new party En Marche!, the independent centrist has helped to break the political mould. For the first time in over 50 years, no candidate from an established mainstream party will be present in the second round.
Mr Macron’s victory, partly on the back of moderate centre-left votes, is likely to hasten the break-up of the Socialists, one of France’s two traditional governing parties. Benoit Hamon, the socialist candidate, won a humiliating 6 per cent.
The election was also a stinging defeat for Mr Fillon, a one-time favourite, whose campaign was scuppered by embezzlement allegations. “I am responsible. This defeat is mine and mine only to bear,” he told supporters at his campaign headquarters in the capital.
Mr Macron, who insists he is neither on the left nor the right, is an avowed pro-European whose platform combines moderate pro-business reforms with Nordic style social protection. Unlike some of the extremist candidates, he is in favour of open markets, managed immigration and a central role for France at the heart of the EU.
Turnout at 7.20pm local time was 77 per cent, according to estimates by Ipsos/Sopra Steria for a group of French media, a little lower than the 79.5 per cent recorded in 2012 but above the 71.6 per cent of 2002.
The estimates are based on partial results from hundreds of polling stations across the country adjusted to give an accurate picture of the French electorate.
Sunday’s first round vote turned into a four-way cliffhanger. It followed a tumultuous campaign, marked by surprise primary results, corruption allegations, insurgent candidates from the extremes and in the last week a terror attack in Paris.
Additional reporting by Harriet Agnew and Jim Brunsden in Paris and Michael Stothard in Hénin-Beamont