Le Pen and Macron to battle it out as race for French presidency down to final two
Centrist Emmanuel Macron will face far right leader Marine le Pen in a head-to-head battle for the French presidency as the country's voters abandoned the orthodox political establishment.
Mr Macron, who quit current president Francois Hollande's Socialists only last year to launch a new party, led the way with 23.7% of the first round vote, according to an exit poll by Ipsos and Sopra Steria.
He led his Front National challenger Ms Le Pen (21.7%) by 2%, with scandal-plagued Gaullist Francois Fillon and far-left challenger Jean-Luc Melenchon tied in third on 19.5%.
Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon trailed in a distant fifth with just 6.2% of the vote.
The risk of a victory by Ms Le Pen prompted centre right politicians including Mr Fillon and Socialist prime minister Bernard Cazeneuve to urge supporters to back Mr Macron in the second round of voting on May 7.
The last opinion polls before voting opened showed Ms Le Pen and Mr Macron narrowly ahead of Mr Fillon and Mr Melenchon, in what was billed as one of the most unpredictable elections in generations.
Pro-European Mr Macron was the Socialist finance minister until the autumn, when he quit to set up the En Marche movement, which he defines as centrist, and which has attracted support from left, centre and right.
The anti-EU Ms Le Pen's campaign majored on jobs and security as well as the threat from Islamic extremism.
It also saw her deny French state complicity rounding up Jews for the Nazis in the Second World War, but she also picked up muted plaudits from US President Donald Trump.
Speaking at the White House after a terrorist attack on Paris last week left a policeman dead, Mr Trump said she was "strongest on borders, and she's the strongest on what's been going on in France".
The country is going to the polls to elect the successor to Mr Hollande, who is not running after serving a single term in office.
Earlier, thousands of French expatriates had queued for hours at polling stations in London to cast their votes.
Polling stations were also set up in UK cities including Belfast, for the expatriate community to cast their votes.