Le Pen steps down as party leader

French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has announced that she is temporarily stepping down as head of her National Front party.

The centrist Macron and populist Marine Le Pen will go onto a second round vote, with Macron favoured to win.

The other candidates conceded defeat by 8pm on Sunday.

Surveys pointing to a clear Macron victory soothed investors who have been unnerved by Le Pen's pledges to ditch the euro, print money and possibly quit the EU.

With 97 per cent of polling stations declared, Ms Le Pen has secured 21.4 per cent of the vote and Mr Macron, 23.9 per cent.

Visiting a market in the northern town of Rouvroy on Monday, 48-year-old Ms Le Pen lashed out at the "rotten old republican front" - the ad-hoc anti-FN coalition formed by mainstream parties whenever the party is at the gates of power. "I am the only one who can guarantee the French's protection", she added.

"I fought against (Socialist President Francois) Hollande for five years and can not back his heir", said 28-year-old parliamentary assistant Eric de La Fouchardiere, referring to Macron, a former adviser and minister of Hollande's, at an election night gathering on Sunday.

"She inherited her father's party and we will undoubtedly have Le Pens running for the next 20 years, because after we had the father, we have the daughter and we will doubtless have the niece", he said, referring to Marion Marechal-Le Pen.

"I will be above partisan considerations", she added. They did Wednesday in 2007 and Macron now has several step-grandchildren.

A candidate seen as pro-business won the most votes Sunday, and many investors expect him to win a run-off against the remaining anti-EU candidate, which is set for May 7.

"It is obvious that the Western world will do anything to prevent Le Pen from gaining the presidential seat", The State Duma deputy with ruling United Russia party, Sergei Zheleznyak, told reporters on Monday.

"The voters who voted for Mr Melenchon are angry voters".

Both Mr Macron and Ms Le Pen campaigned as rebels who transcended the left-right divide.

Warnings against the dangers of globalisation and terrorism and efforts to portray rival Emmanuel Macron as the establishment candidate will be at the heart of Marine Le Pen's campaign for the May 7 French election run-off.

"I have always considered that the president of the republic is the president of all French people".

Addressing thousands of flag-waving supporters in Paris on Sunday evening, Mr Macron said he aimed to unite "patriots" against "the threat of nationalists".

Ms Le Pen, who has been hoping to emulate Donald Trump's victory in the USA, said the French faced a choice between "runaway globalisation" and a protectionist France.

He would not heed Fillon's call to back Macron and would either vote Le Pen or spoil his ballot, he said. "I am the presidential candidate", Ms Le Pen said on French public television news.

But her share of the vote was far below a March poll high of 27 per cent.

Although generally understood as a far-right politician, on social issues, she is not traditionally conservative.

But Macron's party spokesman, Benjamin Griveaux, scoffed at the idea of Le Pen as an agent of change.

  • Salvatore Jensen