FRENCH polling agency projections show President Emmanuel Macron and far-right rival Marine Le Pen leading in the first round of the presidential election.

If borne out by official results, the two will advance to a presidential run-off on April 24 with strong echoes of their last face-off in the 2017 election.

The projections show Macron with a comfortable first-round lead on Sunday of between 27-29% support, ahead of Le Pen, who is expected to capture 23-24% of the vote.

But the second round is likely to be tight.

The election’s result will impact Europe’s direction as it tried to contain Russia and the havoc wreaked by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine.

The National:

The April 24 run-off appears set to pit the centrist president seeking to modernise the economy and strengthen European co-operation against the nationalist Le Pen, who has seen a popularity boost after tapping into voter anger over rising inflation..

Pollsters suggest that just a few percentage points could separate the familiar foes in the second-round vote.

That nail-biting scenario sets up a run-off campaign likely to be far more confrontational and volatile than during round one, which was largely overshadowed by the war in Ukraine.

With its potential to reshape France’s post-war identity, the election has wide international significance. A Macron victory would be seen as a defeat for European populists.

It might also not be cheered in the Kremlin: Macron has strongly backed European Union sanctions on Russia, while Le Pen has worried publicly about their impact on French living standards.

Le Pen has said “given the situation in the country and in the world”, the election outcome could determine “not only the next five years, but probably the next 50 years” in France.

In the 27-member EU, only France has a nuclear arsenal and a UN Security Council veto. As Putin keeps up his military’s assault on Ukraine, French power is helping to shape the European response.

Macron is the only leading French presidential candidate who fully supports the Nato military alliance.

France operates a low-tech voting system, unchanged for generations, with paper ballots cast in person and hand-counted.

Macron for months looked like a certain to become France’s first president in 20 years to win a second term.

But National Rally leader Le Pen ate into his polling lead in the campaign’s closing stages, as the pain of rising fuel, food and energy prices became a dominant election theme for many low-income households.

Macron’s win over Le Pen in 2017 to become France’s youngest modern president was seen as a victory against populist, nationalist politics, coming in the wake of Donald Trump’s election to the White House and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, both in 2016.

To beat Le Pen in a run-off, the 44-year-old president will need to pick apart her years-long rebranding effort to make herself seem more pragmatic and less extreme, a makeover that has including showing off her love of cats.

Macron has accused Le Pen of pushing an extremist manifesto of racist and ruinous policies. Le Pen wants to ban Muslim headscarves in French streets and halal and kosher butchers, and drastically reduce immigration from outside Europe.