Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen were gearing up on Monday for a two-week battle for the French presidency after they reached what polls suggest will be a narrow second ballot between the incumbent and his far-right challenger.
As Mr Macron took his re-election campaign to his rival's northern heartlands, his allies sought to portray Ms Le Pen as a Russia-friendly extremist who would divide France along racial and religious lines.
Ms Le Pen's supporters, in turn, sought to unite Mr Macron's critics behind them — urging left-wing voters to switch sides and oppose the president's plans to raise the pension age.
In Sunday's first round the centrist Mr Macron took the lead with 27.6 per cent of the vote, while Ms Le Pen was second with 23.4 per cent — setting up a rematch of the run-off in 2017, which the current president won by a landslide.
Polls predict a closer race this time, with two snap surveys on Sunday night showing Mr Macron ahead by two to four points in the final round after 10 other candidates were eliminated.
As the two rivals scramble for support in the April 24 run-off, all eyes are on the 22 per cent who supported the left-wing hardliner Jean-Luc Melenchon, who were left without clear instructions from their eliminated candidate.
Although Mr Melenchon told supporters that “not one single vote” should go to the far right, his failure to explicitly endorse the president prompted Ms Le Pen's camp to suggest they should abstain in the second round.
Fourth-placed Eric Zemmour, a hardline right-wing pundit seen by analysts as having helped Ms Le Pen appear more moderate, told his supporters to back her in the second round despite differences between the two candidates.
Valerie Pecresse, whose centre-right Republicans slumped to a humiliating fifth place with 4.8 per cent, urged voters to support Mr Macron to stop the far right coming to power.
The president's camp played heavily on that threat on Monday, with Aurore Berge, an MP from Mr Macron's party, describing Ms Le Pen as being “under the direct influence of Russia".
Although Ms Le Pen has sought to distance herself from the Kremlin since it ordered the invasion of Ukraine, past comments favourable to Russian President Vladimir Putin came back to haunt her during this campaign.
A Le Pen victory would have the potential to cause headaches in the European Union, which she wants to reform and where unanimity from all 27 members is required to agree sanctions on Russia. She also wants to loosen France's ties to Nato.
At an EU meeting on Monday, Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said a Le Pen victory would put the bloc on a “totally different track” as he lamented what he called a “kind of political civil war” in France.
Another pro-Macron MP, Herve Berville, said Ms Le Pen would discriminate on the basis of race, religion and gender when in a radio interview he clashed with an opposition politician, Bruno Gollnisch, over the rights of Muslim women in France.
Mr Gollnisch told the BBC programme that “people who come here … they have to adapt to our way of life and it is not the opposite” as he defended Ms Le Pen's plans to fine people for wearing a headscarf.
Another Le Pen ally, Jordan Bardella, the president of the National Rally party, urged Mr Melenchon's supporters to back the right-wing candidate amid fears that the “republican front”, which typically swings behind mainstream candidates, is fraying.
“Candidates don't own their voters,” he said of the left-wing candidate's appeal not to support Ms Le Pen. “I think that many of those who voted for Jean-Luc Melenchon don't want pensions at 65.”
Mr Macron received more explicit endorsements from Socialist Party nominee Anne Hidalgo, environmentalist Yannick Jadot and communist Fabien Roussel, as well as Ms Pecresse.
Alongside Ms Pecresse's low score, Ms Hidalgo's vote share of just 1.7 per cent completed the rout of France's two traditional mainstream parties after Mr Macron's centrist party upended the political scene in 2017.
The president's re-election had appeared all but certain after his visible role in responding to the war in Ukraine earned him a polling boost in early March.
But as attention turned to the soaring cost of living, an issue on which many voters see the president as being out of touch, Ms Le Pen gained ground in the campaign's final weeks and attacked Mr Macron for his minimal presence on the campaign trail.
After holding only one major rally before the first round, Mr Macron headed to northern France on Monday to campaign in a region where many former industrial heartlands backed Ms Le Pen.
“Make no mistake: nothing is decided,” Mr Macron told supporters in his first remarks after the first round. “The debate that we are going to have over the next fortnight will be decisive for our country and Europe.”