French voters faced with ‘two opposing visions of the future’ as President Macron goes head to head with Marine Le Pen

French voters are faced with “two opposing visions of the future”, far-right opposition candidate Marine Le Pen has warned, as President Emmanuel Macron admitted the second round of the election would be a hard fight.

The president, who has become a central figure in attempts to reconciliation between Russia and Ukraine, yesterday took 27 per cent of the first round votes, according to initial counts, followed by National Rally candidate Ms Le Pen with 23 per cent. Hard-left candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon, of the La France Insoumise, was third with close to 22 per cent.

However, Mr Macron has warned his supporters that "nothing is decided" and said his election run-off with far-right challenger Marine Le Pen would be tough.

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"When the extreme right in all its forms represents so much of our country," he said, "we cannot feel that things are going well."

French President Emmanuel Macron addresses supporters in Paris after polls close in first round of voting in the French Presidential Election a the weekend.

Polling firms have today said they believe Mr Macron is likely to win the head-to-head battle, known as the "run-off", although estimates suggested it could be close.

Pollster François Dabi said his company's 51 per cent-49 per cent estimate for the run-off was the closest they had ever predicted. A poll by Elabe was slightly wider at 52 per cent – 48 per cent to Mr Macron.

The centrist Mr Macron, who founded his La République En Marche! party in 2016 and was voted in as president a year later, has spent the first day of the second round campaign in an economically depressed area of northern France where a majority of voters chose Ms Le Pen, close to her electoral stronghold of Henin-Beaumont.

There, he defended his policy over voters’ purchasing power amid a looming cost of living crisis and the stringent Covid regulations he put into place at the peak of the pandemic, where he all but banned unvaccinated citizens from being allowed to participate in many aspects of daily life.

Meanwhile, Ms Le Pen's National Rally officials held meeting to plan strategy ahead of the second round of voting, which takes place on April 24. She said she will hold a press conference tomorrow, which she will devote to explanations of her “way of governing” and her vision of “the necessary revitalisation of democracy”.

Ms Le Pen, daughter of controversial former party leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who led when the group was known as the National Front, summed up the stand-off by saying voters are faced with "a fundamental choice between two opposing visions of the future".

Her father, who has stood for president five times, has been convicted for statements downplaying the Holocaust, and fined for incitement to discrimination regarding remarks made about Muslims in France.

Mr Macron faced Ms Le Pen in the presidential run-off five years ago but opinion polls show the leader of the National Rally is much closer this time to a potential win.

Mr Macron said he wants to convince those who voted for the "extremes" or stayed at home that "our project responds much more seriously to their fears and to the challenges of the time".

On her third attempt to become France's first woman president, Ms Le Pen was rewarded on Sunday for her years-long effort to rebrand herself as more pragmatic and less extreme. Mr Macron has accused Ms Le Pen of pushing a dangerous 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.

In his speech on Sunday evening, Mr Macron said his project would protect all religions and the freedom "to believe, or not".

The rise of food and energy prices is at the core of Ms Le Pen's campaign, but Mr Macron's team argue she would not have the financial means to meet her promises.

"Our focus is now on the project and the values," Senator Francois Patriat, a member of Mr Macron's party, said.

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The strategy consists in being "proud" of what has been done over the past five years, showing "a bit of humility," and "above all, some fighting spirit", he said.

Mr Macron is expected to hit the campaign trail hard in the coming days. Visits to several French regions have been scheduled this week. Prior to Sunday's first round, Mr Macron was absent from most of the electoral campaign as he spent most of his time focusing on diplomatic efforts over the war in Ukraine.

Ms Le Pen's camp, meanwhile, is hoping to capitalise on anger at Mr Macron over policies seen as favouring the rich.

Speaking after Sunday’s vote, Ms Le Pen said it was time for a "great changeover", with a fundamental choice of two opposite views: "Either division and disorder, or a union of the French people around guaranteed social justice," she said.

Mr Macron and Ms Le Pen are to debate on national television on 20 April, four days before the final vote.

In Sunday’s first round vote, Mr Macron improved on his first-round showing in 2017, despite his presidency being rocked by the yellow vest protest movement over perceived economic injustice, the pandemic and Russia's war in Ukraine.

The election outcome will have wide international influence as Europe struggles to contain the havoc wreaked by that war.

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 EU 27 members.

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