Macron and Le Pen are now in a battle for the soul of France

France's far-right leader Marine Le Pen took her party to within reach of power on Sunday with a second-place finish in the country’s presidential election that catapulted her into a runoff with centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron.

The result pits the "French-first" Le Pen, who is staunchly anti-immigrant and proposes a national, “Brexit”-style referendum on leaving the European Union, against the outward gazing Macron, who proposes greater EU integration.

The two-week runoff campaign promises to be a battle for the soul of France that will decide not only the country's future, but that of the EU.

Few political experts expect Le Pen to expand her support sufficiently past her base to win the May 7 election — but then, few predicted Britain’s Brexit or the U.S. election of Donald Trump.

The first round of voting Sunday was notable not only for Le Pen’s strong finish, but because neither of the country’s traditional ruling parties — the Socialists on the left or the Republicans on the right — finished in the running.

"We have seen this tendency recently in democracies for the great parties of government to either disappear or become weak,” said Dominique Reynie, founder of the think tank Fondapol. “We saw this in Greece and also in Italy. The absence of the big parties means the political universe in France has changed."

The words most used to describe the election were “historic” and “unprecedented.” The unheard of field of 11 candidates included a former sheep farmer, two Trotskyists and a man who wants to colonize Mars.

Macron, who ran as an independent, led the field with 23.8%, followed by Le Pen with 21.6%. The candidate of the ruling Socialist Party, Benoit Hamon, suffered an especially humiliating defeat, finishing fifth with just 6.1% of the vote.

The incomplete results showed a virtual tie for third place, with Francois Fillon of the opposition conservative Republicans and the far leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon hovering just under 20%.

In a brief victory speech, Le Pen said she welcomed the result with "humility and gratitude" but did not waver an inch from her tough anti-immigration, anti-Europe, protectionist line.

She called her finish “historic,” adding: "I now have the immense responsibility of defending the French nation. This result is an act of pride of a country raising its head."

Le Pen regards globalization as a "savage" enemy of the people and a "threat to civilization." She also speaks disparagingly about capitalism. Macron, a former Socialist economy minister and one-time Rothschild banker, seeks to harness the benefits of the world economy.

Macron, who has never held an elected position and, at 39, would be the youngest president in France’s history, called for unity in his speech. He said he intended to govern for all France.

"The challenge is to open a new page in our political life and to take action so that everyone is able to find their place in France and in Europe," Macron said. "I want to be the president of all the people of France, for the patriots facing the threat of nationalism."

The result was consistent with what polls had measured for two months, but with up to one-third of French voters undecided or threatening to abstain right up to voting day, there was a sense that anything could happen.

That sense had been heightened on Thursday when a gunman killed a police officer on the Champs-Elysees in Paris — a crime for which Islamic State later claimed responsibility. There had been speculation that the attack could give Le Pen a bounce in the election, but that didn’t happen — in fact, her share of the vote was lower than her numbers in the most recent preelection polls.

In their concession speeches, both Hamon and Fillon urged their supporters to back Macron in the runoff election.

Hamon, running to succeed his party’s deeply unpopular incumbent president, Francois Hollande, never really stood a chance. Fillon, the one-time favorite to win, saw his campaign implode under the pressure of a fraud investigation.

The prospect of a Macron-Le Pen matchup enraged some people. Hundreds protested in Paris, some singing, “No Marine and no Macron.” Police detained three people as demonstrators burned cars and danced around bonfires, the Associated Press reported.

Mai'a Cross, an expert on European politics at Northeastern University in Boston, said she believes the vote for Le Pen will collapse and Macron will win the second round by a large majority.

"There has been a lot of hype about Le Pen, which has emerged mainly in the context of Trump's win and Brexit, but traditionally she has always come out consistently under 50%,” Cross said.

"People may say they like Marine Le Pen, but I believe when it goes to the wire they have difficulty envisaging France with an extremist leader and they go for the safer candidate.

"We have to remember the French electorate is not the U.S. electorate,” she added. “The French are not big fans of Trump and are unlikely, having seen the lesson of Trump, to vote in a similar way and elect someone as radical as Le Pen."

Cross warned that Le Pen could be a "real threat to the liberal world order" if she won.

But a Macron victory would carry its own challenges.

Reynie, who in addition to his position at Fondapol is a professor at Sciences Po university and a former Republican regional election candidate, said Macron's first task would be to win enough seats in legislative elections next month to form a majority in the National Assembly.

With no party mechanism behind him, Macron has promised to field "ordinary civilian" candidates in the two-round legislative vote.

"Can the center govern, that is the question. We have an institutional system in France that relies on the division between political camps, the famous right-left divide. The two-round vote system helps this divide," Reynie said.

"Can Macron obtain a major force in Parliament? I think even for him it will be difficult."

It is not the first time the National Front has been in the second round of a presidential election. In 2002, Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the party in the 1970s, caused a political tsunami when he received a surprising 16.8% of the vote to defeat the Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin.

If the country was shocked, Jean-Marie Le Pen, a pugilistic rebel who appeared barely interested in power, was astonished. Unprepared and without a credible program, he was badly defeated in the second round after France's mainstream right and left parties formed a "Republican bloc" to keep him out.

In the 2012 presidential election, Marine Le Pen was knocked out in the first round, when she scored a party record of 18% against the incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy and the eventual victor, Hollande.

Marc-Olivier Padis, research director at the Paris-based Terra Nova think tank said whoever wins the second round, Macron or Le Pen, will have difficulty governing.

"They will not have a majority in the National Assembly and our political institutions are made for a majority to govern. If there isn't one, it will be hard for those institutions to function. If this happens, France will lose its energy and its ranking in Europe and internationally as well as its role as a world power.

"Having said that, if Emmanuel Macron is elected there will be an enormous renewal of the political class and an upheaval of roles. But perhaps this is what French politics needs. If he doesn't win, the situation is very, very negative. That would be bad news."

Willsher is a special correspondent.

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UPDATES:

5:05 p.m.: This article has been updated throughout with Macron comments, analysis, background.

12:35 p.m.: This article has been updated with Le Pen comments, Hamon and Fillon urging supporters to support Macron.

This article was originally posted at 11:30 a.m.

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