French far-right presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen has announced that she is temporarily stepping down as the leader of the Front National.
The move appears to be an attempt to appeal to a wider range of potential voters ahead of the May 7th election decider between herself and Emmanuel Macron, the independent centrist who came in first in the first round of the presidential vote on Sunday.
“Tonight, I am no longer the president of the National Front. I am the presidential candidate,” she said on French public television news on Monday.
Ms Le Pen has said in the past that she is not a candidate of her party, and made that point when she rolled out her election platform in February, saying the measures she was espousing were not her party’s, but her own.
She has worked to bring in voters from the left and right for several years and tried to clean up her party’s racist, anti-Semitic image.
Politicians on France's left and right have urged voters to block Le Pen's path to power in the May 7th run-off, saying her nationalist, anti-EU and anti-immigration politics would spell disaster for France.
The latest opinion polls indicate that Mr Macron will win at least 61 per cent of votes.
Earlier on Monday, Ms Le Pen accused Mr Macron of being weak in the face of Islamist terrorism.
“I’m on the ground to meet the French people to draw their attention to important subjects, including Islamist terrorism, on which Mr Macron is, to say the least, weak,” she told supporters in her northern stronghold of Hénin-Beaumont.
But defeated conservative candidate Francois Fillon said Ms Le Pen espoused an extremism that would only bring "unhappiness and division" to France.
“As such, there is no other choice than to vote against the extreme right.”
France’s outgoing president, Francois Hollande, also urged people to back Macron in next month’s vote to choose his successor.
The Socialist leader threw his weight behind his former economy minister in a televised address on Monday, saying Le Pen’s policies were divisive and stigmatised sections of the population.
“The presence of the far-right in the second round is a risk for the country,” he said.
“What is at stake is France’s make-up, its unity, its membership of Europe and its place in the world.”
Sunday’s result sets up a fight between Mr Macron’s optimistic vision of a tolerant France and a united Europe with open borders against Ms Le Pen’s darker, inward-looking “French-first” platform, which calls for closed borders, tougher security, less immigration and dropping the euro.
A Harris survey saw Macron going on to win the run-off by 64 per cent to 36.
An Ipsos/Sopra Steria poll gave a similar result, while a new poll by Opinionway on Monday put the margin at 61 per cent to 39 per cent.
The absence in the run-off of candidates from either the mainstream left Socialists or the right-wing Republicans party – the two main political groups that have governed post-war France – also marked a seismic shift in French politics.
Mr Macron (39), a former investment banker, made the run-off on the back of a grassroots campaign without the support of a major political party.
Mr Macron received about 23.7 per cent of votes in the first round, giving him a slight cushion over Ms Le Pen’s 21.53 per cent.
Although Ms Le Pen faces the run-off as the underdog, it is already stunning that she brought her once-taboo party so close to the Élysée Palace.
She hopes to win over far-left and other voters angry at the global elite and distrustful of the untested Mr Macron.
She has said she embodies “the great alternative” for French voters.
In his election day headquarters in Paris, Mr Macron promised to be a president “who protects, who transforms and builds”.
Ms Le Pen portrayed her duel with Mr Macron as a battle between “patriots” and “wild deregulation”, warning of job losses, mass immigration straining resources and “the free circulation of terrorists”.
Whoever wins on May 7th cannot count on the backing of the country’s political mainstream parties.
Even under a constitution that concentrates power in the president’s hands, both Mr Macron and Ms Le Pen will need legislators in parliament to pass laws and implement much of their programmes.
France’s legislative election in June now takes on a vital importance, with huge questions about whether Ms Le Pen and even the more moderate Mr Macron will be able to rally sufficient MPs to their causes.
In Paris, protesters angry at Ms Le Pen’s advance – some from anarchist and anti-fascist groups – scuffled with police following the vote.
The officers fired tear gas to disperse them.
Two people were injured and police detained three people as demonstrators burned cars, danced around bonfires and dodged riot officers.
At a peaceful protest by about 300 people at the Place de la République, some sang, “No Marine and no Macron!”, and, “Now burn your voting cards”.
Mr Fillon said he would vote for Mr Macron on May 7th because Ms Le Pen’s programme “would bankrupt France” and throw the EU into chaos.
In a defiant speech, far-left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon refused to concede defeat in the first round before the official count confirmed pollsters’ projections. He did not say how he would vote in the next round.
In a brief televised message, Socialist prime minister Bernard Cazeneuve urged voters to back Mr Macron to defeat the Front National’s “funereal project of regression for France and of division of the French”.
Socialist presidential candidate Benoit Hamon, who was far behind in Sunday’s results, quickly conceded defeat, but said “the left is not dead” and urged supporters to back Mr Macron.