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Amid tight security, French voters cast ballots for their next president Sunday in a first-round poll that’s seen as a litmus test for the spread of populism around the world and a vote on the future of Europe. 11 candidates are on the ballot. (April 23)
AP

PARIS — French voters backed centrist former economy minister Emmanuel Macron and far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen in the first round of the country’s presidential election, according to French polling agency projections Sunday.

Macron won just under 24% of the vote while Le Pen secured about 22%. The results are provisional but if they hold, the two candidates will compete in a runoff on May 7 that will determine who becomes France’s 25th president.

The first-round vote was seen as a major test of the strength of a continent-wide backlash against Muslim immigration and European unity. Surveys show that Macron is likely to beat Le Pen in the final round.

Le Pen campaigned on an anti-immigration and anti-European Union platform while Macron is a business-friendly candidate who ran as an independent. Conservative Francois Fillon was projected to place third, trailed narrowly by far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.

If the result is confirmed it would be the first time in modern French history that no major-party candidate advances to a presidential runoff. French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve urged voters to support Macron in next month’s final round.

Marion Abonnenc, 21, a student in Paris, said she was “satisfied” and “relieved” that her choice among the candidates is pulling ahead.

“I support Macron but also voted against the extremes which I really don’t want to see in the second round,” she said. “Marine Le Pen has a heinous message which really doesn’t correspond to my values as a youth as a citizen of the world. And it’s not the image of France I want to convey.”

Voters chose between 11 candidates in the most unpredictable French election in decades and came amid heightened security in the wake of a terrorist attack in central Paris on Thursday in which a police officer was shot and killed.

Unpopular Socialist President François Hollande did not run for re-election, unusual for an incumbent French leader.

Macron and Le Pen have vastly different visions for how to govern France, and of French identity.

Le Pen wants to pull the nation out of the EU and close the country’s borders to new immigrants. Macron has broken with France’s traditional left or right political leadership to run as an independent and promised to invest in public infrastructure and modernize France’s workforce.

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France’s stagnant economy, its 10% unemployment rate and national security topped concerns for the 47 million eligible voters. France has been under a state of emergency since the November 2015 terror attacks in Paris and there has been a steady drip of terrorism incidents in France over the last few years.

About 60,000 police and soldiers were deployed across the country to secure polling stations for Sunday’s vote. There were few signs of disturbances.

President Trump told the Associated Press on Friday that he was not officially endorsing Le Pen but he thought the Paris terror attack on Thursday would “probably help” her because she is the candidate who is “strongest on borders, and she’s the strongest on what’s been going on in France.”

On Sunday, Trump tweeted that there was a “very interesting election currently taking place in France.”

Bhatti reported from Berlin; Kim Hjelmgaard contributed from London.

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