(CN) — French President Emmanuel Macron and his far-right rival Marine Le Pen are headed to a second-round runoff in two weeks after they picked up the most ballots Sunday in the first round of the presidential election.
The same match-up happened five years ago in the last presidential runoff, but this time around polls suggest Le Pen has a better chance to prevail.
With her deep ties to Europe's xenophobic and nationalist far-right movements, a Le Pen win would not just be a major upset but a historic shock to the European Union. France is the EU's second-largest economy, the bloc's only nuclear-armed military and, along with Germany, has great sway in steering the 27-state project, which increasingly aims to make a united Europe a global power.
In Sunday's contest, Macron picked up about 27.8% of the vote and Le Pen took in 23.2%. Far-left politician Jean-Luc Melenchon came in third with nearly 22%.
For the second presidential election in a row, France's traditional big-tent parties on the left and right — the Socialists and Republicans — failed miserably as voters across nearly all age groups were lured by the more extreme voices of Le Pen and Melenchon. The traditional mainstream parties have also obviously lost votes to Macron, a former Socialist who created his own party in 2017.
“The presidential election has become very personified; it's much more about the candidate, and it doesn't really appear to be about the party anymore,” said Georgina Wright, an expert with Institut Montaigne, a French think tank, commenting for France 24 television.
The runoff will take place on April 24, a Sunday. Before the runoff vote, Le Pen and Macron will sit down for a major debate on April 20. Five years ago, Le Pen performed very poorly in the debate and that helped seal her defeat. But she will likely be much better prepared this time around and expectations for her will be low.
Sunday was a disaster for the center-left Socialists, represented by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo. She won only 1.7% of the vote, by far the worst result ever for the Socialists. Only 10 years ago, the Socialists were in power under former President Francois Hollande, but the party has cratered since then.
France's center-right Les Republicains also fared dismally with their candidate, Valerie Pecresse, picking up only 4.8%, just under the important threshold of 5%. The state reimburses parties' campaign expenses when they reach 5% and above.
In a victory speech, Macron portrayed Le Pen as a threat to France and anathema to the nation's core values.
“I do not want France to pull out of the EU and to only have international xenophobes and populists as allies — that is not us,” Macron said.
His words were an obvious reference to Le Pen's friendly relations with fellow far-right leaders in Europe, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. She also has spoken warmly about Russian President Vladimir Putin and received Russian funding for her campaigns.
Le Pen took over the openly xenophobic National Front from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 2011. Following her defeat to Macron in 2017, she changed the name of the party to National Rally and sought to rebrand it as moderate.
Still, at its core, her party remains deeply nationalistic, anti-immigrant and anti-EU. Le Pen has spoken out in the past against the supranational powers of the EU, and she represents French voters — many of them from blue-collar, rural and small business groups — who believe France would be better off outside the bloc. In recent years, she's stopped talking about leaving the EU but talked about changing the EU from within.
Round 1 of the election saw Le Pen running a toned-down campaign where she spent weeks traveling the country to speak with voters and talked about bread-and-butter issues.