- Emmanuel Macron projected to win between 23-24% in Sunday's first round
- 39-year-old Macron had never before stood for election
- Presidential campaign saw widespread anger at traditional parties
Macron was projected to win between 23 and 24 per cent in Sunday's first round, slightly ahead of National Front (FN) leader Le Pen with between 21.6 and 23 per cent, according to estimates on public television.
"The French have expressed their desire for change," Macron told AFP in a statement, adding: "We're clearly turning a page in French political history."
The outcome capped an extraordinary few months for a deeply divided France, which saw a campaign full of twists and turns and widespread anger at traditional parties.
It signals a stinging defeat for the scandal-hit rightwing Republicans party candidate Francois Fillon and Socialist Benoit Hamon, meaning neither of France's mainstream parties will be in the second round for the first time in 60 years.
Macron, a 39-year-old who had never before stood for election and only started his independent centrist movement 12 months ago, will be the overwhelming favourite to win the second round on May 7.
All polls show the pro-Europe, pro-business moderniser with a 20-point lead in a head-to head contest with Le Pen, who has hardened her anti-immigration and anti-Europe rhetoric over the last week.
The French vote was being closely watched as a bellwether for populist sentiment following the election of Donald Trump as US President and Britain's vote to leave the EU.
Throughout the campaign, Macron insisted that France was "contrarian" -- ready to elect a pro-globalisation liberal at a time when rightwing nationalists are making gains across the world.
"It's a victory for openness, social-mindedness and... an understanding of the modern economy that will restore French competitiveness," Macron supporter Marie-Helene Visconti, a 60-year-old artist, told AFP at his election party.
Le Pen follows father
Le Pen will follow in her father Jean-Marie's footsteps who made it through to the second round in 2002. He suffered a stinging defeat when mainstream parties closed ranks to keep him out.
Le Pen's niece, young hardliner Marion Marechal-Le Pen, hailed a "historic victory for patriots and nationalists" but reaction at her headquarters was subdued compared with the euphoria at the Macron party.
There were already signs that Macron, who is married to his former school teacher 25 years older than him, would also enjoy support from his defeated rivals in the Republicans and Socialist parties.
Leading figures from both camps immediately called for voters to vote for the poetry and theatre lover.
Hamon, forecast to win a humiliating six percent and finish in fifth place, said the left had suffered a "historic drubbing" but said voters should back Macron to keep out Le Pen who he said was "an enemy of the republic".
Fillon followed suit, saying he would vote for Macron.
With France still under the state of emergency imposed after the Paris attacks of November 2015, around 50,000 police and 7,000 soldiers were deployed to guard voters.
Thursday's shooting on the most famous street in Paris was the latest in a bloody series of terror attacks that have cost more than 230 lives since 2015.
Nearly 47 million people were eligible to vote in the eurozone's second biggest economy.
Voting was brisk on a bright spring day, defying forecasts of a low turnout after a campaign dominated by scandals.
Riding the wave of disaffection with globalisation that carried Trump to the White House and led Britain to vote for Brexit, Le Pen has vowed to abandon the euro, hold a referendum on withdrawing from the EU and adopt a French-first policy on jobs and housing.
"We have had a great campaign. We succeeded in imposing the idea of patriotism," said Florian Philippot, one of Le Pen's top aides. "Now it's a new campaign that begins."
Far-right expert Nonna Mayer at Sciences Po university told AFP that nothing was impossible, "but it seems unlikely that she will carry the second round."
"If she wins, it will obviously be an anti-Europe, protectionist, exclusionist line that wins and which could have troubling consequences for Europe and France," she added.
'Twists and turns'
Closely watched around the world, the French campaign has been full of twists and turns.
A race that began with the low-key Fillon winning the right-wing nomination and shifted into higher gear when unpopular Socialist President Francois Hollande decided not to seek re-election.
Hollande's five years in office have been dogged by a sluggish economy and the constant terror threat.
With voters hungry for change, Fillon was seen as a shoo-in until January when he was knocked off course by allegations that he gave his British-born wife a fictitious job as his parliamentary assistant for which she was paid nearly 700,000 euros ($750,000).
The Socialist nominee Benoit Hamon also struggled to impose himself, haemorrhaging support to the fiery far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon.
A total of 11 candidates took part in the election.