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PARIS (AP) – Incumbent Emmanuel Macron will face nationalist Marine Le Pen in a winner-takes-all runoff for the French presidency, after they both advanced Sunday in the first round of voting in the country’s election to set up another head-to-head clash of their sharply opposing visions for France.
But while Mr. Macron won their last contest in 2017 by a landslide to become France’s youngest-ever president, the same outcome this time is far from guaranteed. Mr. Macron, now 44, emerged ahead from Sunday’s first round, but the runoff is essentially a new election and the next two weeks of campaigning to the April 24 second-round vote promise to be bruising and confrontational against his 53-year-old political nemesis.
Savvier and more polished as she makes her third attempt to become France’s first woman president, Ms. Le Pen was handsomely rewarded Sunday at the ballot box for her years-long effort to rebrand herself as more pragmatic and less extreme. Mr. Macron has accused Ms. Le Pen of pushing an extremist manifesto of racist, ruinous policies. Ms. Le Pen wants to roll back some rights for Muslims, banning them from wearing headscarves in public, and to drastically reduce immigration from outside Europe.
On Sunday, she racked up her best-ever first-round tally of votes. With most votes counted, Mr. Macron had just over 27 percent and Ms. Le Pen had just under 24 percent. Hard-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon was third, missing out on the two-candidate runoff, with close to 22 percent.
Mr. Macron also improved on his first-round showing in 2017, despite his presidency being rocked by an almost unrelenting series of both domestic and international crises. They include Russia’s war in Ukraine that overshadowed the election and diverted his focus from the campaign.
The election outcome will have wide international influence as Europe struggles to contain the havoc wreaked by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Mr. Macron has strongly backed European Union sanctions on Russia while Ms. Le Pen has worried about their impact on French living standards. Mr. Macron also is a firm supporter of NATO and of close collaboration among the European Union’s 27 members.
Mr. Macron for months had looked like a shoo-in to become France’s first president in 20 years to win a second term. But National Rally leader Ms. Le Pen, in a late surge, tapped into the foremost issue on many French voters’ minds: soaring costs for food, gas and heating due to rising inflation and the repercussions of Western sanctions on Russia.
To win in round two, both Mr. Macron and Ms. Le Pen now need to reach out to voters who backed the 10 presidential candidates defeated Sunday.