Polls have closed in the first round of the presidential vote, and for the first time in modern French history, no major-party candidate will advance to the runoff.
First projections based on partial results showed Emmanuel Macron, a former minister and leader of the centrist En Marche! party and Marine Le Pen, president of the far-right National Front through to the second and final round, which will be held on May 7.
Voter turnout was higher than expected in the closely watched race that could ultimately change the future of Europe.
In a contest that was too close to call up to the last minute, Macron - hailed for months as the favourite to become France's next president - was projected to get 24 percent by the pollster Harris and 23.7 percent by Elabe.
Le Pen, leader of the anti-immigration and anti-EU National Front, was given 22 percent by both institutes. Three further pollsters all projected broadly similar results.
There was a total of 11 candidates vying for France's top job, four of whom stood a real chance at making it through to the final round.
Francois Fillon, a former minister and leader of the conservative Republican party and Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the far-left La France Insoumise party received around 20 percent each, according to Harris, which means their elimination from the race.
EU relations in focus
Le Pen has promised to review the country's ties with the EU and raised the prospect of leaving the bloc.
As soon as voting ended, Le Pen's niece Marion Jeanne Caroline Marechal-Le Pen, called the election "a historical victory for patriots".
Le Pen later emerged to address her supporters, saying she was the "candidate of the people" and offered "the great alternative" in the presidential race.
"The major issue of this election is runaway globalisation, which is putting our civilisation in danger," she said.
"The French have a very simple choice. Either we continue on the path of ... offshoring jobs, unfair foreign competition, mass immigration and free movement of terrorists ... or you chose France and borders that protect," she added, in an apparent dig at the EU.
Macron, on the other hand, is an unashamed supporter of the EU, a standpoint likely to cost him votes on both the Eurosceptic left and right.
After voting closed, Macron told the AFP news agency: "The French have expressed their desire for change ... We're clearly turning a page in French political history."
Jean-Marc Ayrault, France's foreign minister, was among those who called on French citizens to throw their support behind Macron in the final round.
He tweeted there was a "clear choice" ahead, and people should mobilise behind Macron "for France, for the Republic, for Europe".
Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, meanwhile, said: "I solemnly call for a vote for Emmanuel Macron in the second round ... to beat the National Front and block its baneful plan to bring France backwards and divide the French."
Losing candidate Fillon also urged citizens to vote for Macron, saying as he conceded defeat there was "no other option but to vote against the far right".
Some 47 million people are eligible to vote in France.
By late afternoon, turnout was above 69 percent - almost as high as the 2012 presidential vote. Many had expected a lower turnout this year.
The final abstention rate was also similar to levels seen in the previous presidential election at around 20 percent, according to surveys by Harris Interactive and CNews.
Student Elmire says she is pleased Macron is through to the second round of the French presidential election
Al Jazeera's Shafik Mandhai, reporting from the official Macron celebration at the Paris Exhibition Centre, said: "Among the crowds here, there was a sense of optimism but also slight nervousness that Fillon could pull off a surge at Macron's expense.
"A few minutes before the official projections were announced, there were loud cheers as news filtered out about the impending result."
Elmire, a 20-year-old student, told Al Jazeera: "I'm happy that Macron won and that he's going to refresh the French political system."
Supporters of Le Pen, meanwhile, chanted "We will win!" at her headquarters in Henin-Beaumont.
They burst into a rendition of the French national anthem, and waved French flags and blue flags with "Marine President" inscribed on them.
Thomas Brisson, a Paris-based political analyst, told Al Jazeera: "Le Pen has gained new voters in socio-political terms," including xeonophobes and "victims of globalisation".
"Results night is not as good as Le Pen expected. A few weeks ago, she expected to get something like 26 percent."