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The decisive second round of the election, on 7 May, will be between liberal centrist Emmanuel Macron and nationalist leader Marine Le Pen.
Mr Macron, 39, heads a new movement called En Marche! ("On the Move"). He came top, with 23.75%, ahead of Ms Le Pen on 21.53%. He is the clear favourite to become president.
The result showed France deeply divided. Mr Macron stands for an open, free market economy and supports the EU. He dominated the vote in the cities.
Ms Le Pen is protectionist and wants to drastically cut immigration. She polled strongly in rural areas and struggling "rust belt" towns.