Emmanuel Macron was elected as the youngest president in French history on Sunday night after winning a landslide victory over the far-right Marine Le Pen, a result that effectively saved the European Union from collapse.
The centrist former banker, aged 39, won a resounding 65.8 per cent of the vote, according to exit polls. Ms Le Pen, who stood down temporarily as leader of the Front National (FN) party in the hope of broadening her appeal, was left trailing behind on 34.2 per cent.
Abstention – seen before polling day as the biggest threat to Mr Macron – was estimated at 25.3 per cent, the highest since 1969. A further 8.8 per cent of voters submitted incomplete or empty papers.
Mr Macron will now replace his former mentor, the deeply unpopular socialist head of state Francois Hollande, at the Elysee palace.
Despite her crushing defeat, Ms Le Pen, 48, bettered the score of her estranged father and FN founder, Jean-Marie, who managed only 18 per cent of the vote against the centre-right Jacques Chirac in 2002. But her total, if confirmed as final results are declared, fell short of the most optimistic opinion poll forecasts since she ended in second place to the centrist candidate in the first round of voting on April 23.
The result was greeted with scenes of exuberant celebration by cheering, flag-waving Macron supporters in Paris, notably those gathered in front of the glass pyramid at the Louvre museum.
In his first remarks following the news of his victory, Mr Macron welcomed a “new page” in French history with hope and confidence restored. Ms Le Pen claimed the result established the FN as the major opposition force in France but also significantly promised a major reform of the party.
For the first time in modern history, neither of the major parties of the left and right was represented in the run-off.
Many of these parties’ leading figures urged voters back Mr Macron over Ms Le Pen, who was seen by many critics as standing for racist, anti-Islam and ruinously protectionist policies. Most within France’s large Muslim population will be hugely relieved by her failure to win power.
Mr Macron is pro-EU, and in favour of free market economics and the reform of French labour law and pension arrangements. Ms Le Pen wanted a return to a sovereign French currency instead of the euro and promised a referendum on Frexit, the French equivalent of Brexit. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, was one of the first to congratulate Mr Macron, welcoming his success as a “victory for Europe”. European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, meanwhile, hailed French voters for choosing Mr Macron. “Happy that the French chose a European future,” he tweeted.
With his emphatic win, the triumphant president-elect completes an extraordinary rise to power, having never previously been elected to public office. His movement, En Marche (Forward), bears his initials but was built from scratch and did not even exist until just over a year ago.
The former economy minister was parachuted into the ailing socialist government of Mr Hollande in 2014, after first serving as his adviser.
Mr Macron resigned from the post in August last year, however, disillusioned by the left and his own struggles against dissidents and trade unions over what he saw as vital changes to France’s employment law. He said after leaving government that he was not a socialist after all.
The president-elect won handsomely because even those who found his mixture of left, right and centre policies unconvincing were willing to form what opponents of Ms Le Pen called a “united republican front” against the FN.
The conservative daily newspaper Le Figaro, hardly an enthusiastic champion of Mr Macron, said "99 per cent of serious economists" believed Ms Le Pen's programme would bankrupt France.
Mr Macron found appeal among young professionals and other voters eager for change but not willing to embrace the extremes of the left – by supporting the radical left-wing candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon – or the right, by voting for Ms Le Pen.
Having won the presidency, Mr Macron now faces another stiff test. He needs to forge either a majority in June’s parliamentary elections or settle for a coalition with members of other parties.
* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse