French voters have handed the European Union a badly needed boost, making centrist Emmanuel Macron the favourite to become the country’s next president and forcing the far right anti-globalist National Front to regroup.

Mr. Macron came out on top in the first round of voting Sunday in the country’s presidential election and he’s now the clear front-runner to defeat the National Front’s Marine Le Pen in a runoff on May 7.

Their campaigns over the next two weeks will be a clash of visions for the country, pitting Ms. Le Pen’s Donald Trump-style protectionism against Mr. Macron’s endorsement of a pro-EU, more open economy.

His victory on Sunday will be a relief for EU backers.

It comes only a few weeks after voters in the Netherlands turned away from an anti-immigrant movement and re-elected a pro-EU government, although with a smaller mandate. And it will bolster the EU as it begins negotiating Britain’s departure with Prime Minister Theresa May, who is expected to win a substantial mandate in an election on June 8.

However, Sunday’s results did deal another blow to establishment politics, after Brexit and the election of Mr. Trump in the United States. The candidates for the traditional parties on the right and left – François Fillon of the Republicans and Socialist Benoît Hamon – could do no better than third and fifth respectively, as voters appeared fed up with the status quo and opted for untested leadership.

Mr. Macron, a 39-year old former banker, only started his political movement, called En Marche!, a year ago but, with a centre-right platform, he managed to draw support from disaffected voters on all sides.

“In one year, we have changed the face of French politics,” Mr. Macron told hundreds of supporters in Paris. He added that he planned to campaign on a message of optimism and hope “for our country and for Europe.” He also railed against what he called 30 years of rule by the two mainstream parties, saying the country was ready for a change to something different.

Mr. Macron certainly has the edge in the second round. Polls give him a big lead over Ms. Le Pen and he now has the backing of the main parties as well as Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve and one of the largest trade unions. Investors also expect him to win handily and the value of the euro soared immediately after Sunday’s results. For the markets, “the election is more or less over,” said Nicholas Spiro, a partner at London’s Lauressa Advisory. “This is the result investors were expecting. Markets will rightly treat this as a stark choice between the anti-European far right and the pro-European centre and will now be even more convinced that Macron will win.”

But there are no guarantees and Ms. Le Pen didn’t lose by much on Sunday. In a race that was too close to call up to the last minute, Mr. Macron was projected to get 23.7 per cent of the first-round vote by the pollster Ifop-Fiducial; Ms. Le Pen was given 21.7 per cent.

Ms. Le Pen has also already won more votes in a presidential race than her father, party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, who took 18 per cent of the vote in the second round in 2002. And her success could translate into more seats in June when the country holds parliamentary elections.

She conceded nothing on Sunday, claiming victory and insisting that she was the only true anti-establishment candidate who offers France “the great alternative.”

“This result is historic. It puts on me a huge responsibility to defend the French nation, its unity, its security, its culture, its prosperity and its independence,” she told supporters in Lille.

She made it clear she will continue to campaign on her France-first agenda that calls for a halt to all immigration, a referendum on France’s membership in the European Union and withdrawing the country from the euro. Mr. Macron will counter with his liberal platform of economic reforms, open borders and improvements to France’s social safety net. But he, too, will be calling for changes to the EU, meaning that no matter who wins in two weeks, France and the EU are headed for change.

Mr. Macron has other advantages heading into the second round. The country’s economy is showing signs of turning around, something he is likely to exploit as he and others have painted Ms. Le Pen’s economic policies as reckless, particularly her call to pull France out of the euro. And while Mr. Macron’s support has remained largely steady during the campaign, Ms. Le Pen has been slipping, falling from as high as 27 per cent just a few weeks ago. Last week’s terrorist attack in Paris, which saw one police officer killed and two others injured, also did not appear to boost Ms. Le Pen’s support as many had expected.

However, Mr. Macron still faces some major challenges. France’s economic recovery has been meagre and unemployment remains nearly 10 per cent, and far higher in many regions. There’s also growing antagonism toward the EU and its many rules that some say have made the economy worse. Ms. Le Pen has drawn support in parts of the country hit hard by the economic downturn, notably in the north. Mr. Macron is also still largely unknown to many voters. He has never run for elective office and has spent much of his career as an investment banker.

Mr. Macron “is a mystery,” said political scientist Dominique Moïsi. “On the surface, he is the best of the best. Everything you want he has it.” But his policies remain vague on many points, he added. That includes his economic policies, where he has not been specific about just how far he would go in easing the country’s rigid labour laws.

Mr. Spiro said the fact Ms. Le Pen and far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who is also a Euroskeptic, secured nearly 45 per cent of the vote “is a damning indictment of the European project and bodes ill for the prospects for meaningful fiscal and structural reform in France.”

With Mr. Macron and his pro-Europe agenda the winner in the first round, all eyes now to turn to Italy, the euro zone’s third biggest economy, as the biggest threat to the European project. Italy is seeing its own populist surge. Its Five Star Movement (M5S), the main opposition party in parliament and the biggest elected populist party in the EU, is leading in the polls and could form the next government – an election must be held by this time next year. The latest polls put M5S at 31.5 per cent against 25 per cent for the ruling Democratic Party.

For now, though, Mr. Macron’s supporters hailed his win as a vote of confidence in Europe. They pointed out that, among the 11 presidential candidates, he has been the only one backing a stronger EU. “Victory for Mr. Macron will be a victory for Europe,” said Claude Posternak as he stood in the middle of a sea of people cheering and waving French and EU flags at Mr. Macron’s campaign celebration. “It’s a victory for Europe, for a new Europe.”

PARIS — The Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, Apr. 23, 2017 8:27AM EDT
Last updated Monday, Apr. 24, 2017 8:57AM EDT

What you need to know about Marine Le Pen, France’s far-right leader who could become president (The Globe and Mail)