France's presidential election today has consequences for Europe and financial markets

Artboard 3  Created with Sketch

Artboard 3 Created with Sketch

Fillon had consistently been polling third in surveys leading up to the election. The centrist Mr Macron is on pace to finish in the lead, stoking optimism about his ability to defeat Ms Le Pen in the runoff on May 7.

But he has has never held elected office - he served as economy minister under Hollande before resigning previous year - and his lack of experience, lack of established party and youth could count against him. "We did it", he told jubilant supporters.

Media in neighbouring Britain hailed pro-European Macron's strong showing, while adding that Le Pen's projected second-place success - securing her a place alongside him in the May 7 run-off - should not be ignored.

The French interior ministry reports a turnout of 28.5% by midday French time, 10:00 GMT.

Four of the 11 candidates in the race are now in a position to bag one of the two first-round places which would take them into a final run-off.

France voted on Sunday in the first round of a bitterly fought presidential election that is crucial to the future of Europe and a closely-watched test of voters' anger with the political establishment.

"It's a political quake in this country and in Europe", veteran journalist Christine Ockrent told CNN. It sets up a battle between Macrons optimistic vision of a tolerant France and a united Europe with open borders against Le Pens darker, inward-looking “French-first” platform that calls for closed borders, tougher security, less immigration and dropping the shared euro currency to return to the French franc.

Le Pen, 48, went to the polls in Henin-Beaumont, a former coal mining town in northern France whose mayor is a member of her anti-immigration National Front (FN) party.

"The French people must seize this opportunity, because the enormous challenge of this election is the wild globalization that puts our civilization at risk", Le Pen said.

France is not the only European country seeing a wave of populist politics. "Don't give in to fear, divisions and intimidation", Macron said.

The stakes are high, it said: "The final choice of the French will change their country, but also the face of the world".

Sunday's first round contest was held under tight security after a terror attack in Paris Thursday night disrupted the final day of campaigning Friday.

Cazeneuve said more than 50,000 police and gendarmes and 7,000 soldiers would be on duty for Sunday's first-round vote in the two-stage election, and nothing could be allowed to "hamper this democratic moment".

The incumbent President, fellow socialist François Hollande, whose approval ratings have remained in the doldrums for several years, made the unusual decision not to run for a second term.

Polls have consistently predicted that Macron and Le Pen will get past Sunday's first round vote, but conservative candidate Francois Fillon and Communist-backed Jean-Luc Melenchon are hot on their heels.

Fillon, the mainstream Republican candidate, was initially a frontrunner but his campaign stumbled thanks to a scandal over claims he paid his wife and children for work they did not do. He denies any wrongdoing. "I have no idea who I'm going to vote for. Abstention is not in my genes, especially when an extremist party is close to power".

With a broad smile, Ms Le Pen stood before an adoring crowd and said her National Front party will represent "the great alternative" to the French people and pledged to open a "much-needed" debate on globalisation.

The former Socialist economy minister and former banker was relaxed and posed for selfies with voters. They burst into a rendition of the French national anthem, and waved French flags and blue flags with "Marine President" inscribed on them. The leader of the National Front has campaigned on a promise to ditch the euro and pull France out of the European Union.

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