PARIS -- French President Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, a far-right presidential candidate, took the top two spots in the first round of the presidential elections on Sunday, according to preliminary results.
The two, who led a crowded field of twelve candidates, will advance to a second and final round of voting on April 24.
Macron, who is seeking reelection, placed first with about 28% of votes cast on Sunday, according to preliminary results. Le Pen carried about 23%.
Experts say the latest trends showed a strong and rapid rise in the number of voters in favor of Le Pen, while those of Macron were falling.
"We've seen a positive dynamic in favor of Marine Le Pen," Henri Wallard, deputy CEO at Ipsos polling, told ABC News. "She has progressed clearly in the last two or three weeks before this first phase."
The far-right candidate's message has reached French people concerned about the cost of living.
"The most important concern expressed by the French voters is the purchasing power and and the social issues in general," Wallard said. "And the fact is Marine Le Pen was early on in the campaign well-positioned on this topic ... and the fact is that we have seen as a consequence of the current international crisis a surge in the price of oil and gas and the impact on inflation."
The war in Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic have disrupted this atypical presidential campaign and added uncertainty for voters.
France risks breaking the 2002 record of non-voters, which reached 28% in the whole of France, according to Jean Chiche, emeritus researcher at the SciencesPo Center for Political Research. Abstention hovers over the elections, as the majority of French people don't feel represented by political office-holders, he said.
"There is a rejection of the political class," Chiche told ABC News. "It is the young people of the working classes who live in isolated cities, or in peri-urban areas; they are the most abstaining."
Macron achieved high scores in the first 15 days of the war in Ukraine, according to Chiche, a major boost for the president seeking reelection.
"Faced with the war in Ukraine, he fully assumed his responsibilities as head of state, everyone in France understands that," Maud Bregeon, spokesperson for Macron's La République En Marche party told ABC News.
Critics have pointed to Macron's absence on the campaign trail since the beginning of the war as one cause for his dropping popularity.
Macron is also facing possible trouble at the polls since his government came under fire in February for hiring and paying large amounts to a U.S. consulting firm, as first revealed by two journalists from French newspaper L'Obs. The French government paid up 1.5 billion euros in 2020 to several private consulting firms for services such as counting health masks at the beginning of the pandemic or drafting a military strategy, the newspaper reported.
A senatorial commission of inquiry into the government's frequent and expensive payments to those firms later unveiled that one of them, McKinsey & Company, did not pay taxes in France between 2011 and 2020, despite the large sums received. The National Financial Prosecutor's Office opened a preliminary investigation on April 6 for aggravated money laundering of tax evasion.
McKinsey responded the same day, saying in a statement that "the tax approach applied by McKinsey is similar in the countries where it is present and has been consistent for years."
"As it stands, if Macron doesn't campaign more, if Marine Le Pen makes it to the second round and at the same time she doesn't collapse like she had done in 2017, then the probability of her being elected is non-zero; it is between 15 to 30%," Chiche said before Sunday's vote.
The rise of Le Pen's party also led to the emergence of new candidates on the far-right, such as polemist Eric Zemmour.
Zemmour, who was found guilty in January of hate speech by a Paris court, has stood out with a campaign focused on what he calls the fight against Islamism, calling on French Muslims to "renounce the practice of Islam, which imposes a legal and political code."
Proposals from conservative and far-right camps targeting Muslim populations -- such as requiring French nationals to have certain first names -- have come under strong criticism.
"It's a reaction of disgust," Abdallah Zekri, president of the National Observatory for the Fight against Islamophobia, told ABC News. "When he says we have to change our first names? Why change our first names? Zemmour is completely out of bounds."
Other proposals targeting migrants, such as the conservative candidate Valérie Pécresse's bid to systematically remove illegal immigrants accompanied by a "zero visa" policy for countries that refuse to take them back have also hit a nerve with migrant communities.
Zekri says speeches like that of Zemmour, conservative party candidate Valérie Pécresse and Le Pen tend to lead to an increase in Islamophobic acts.
"I have been following anti-Muslim acts for over 11 years," Zekri said. "Whenever an election approaches, Islamophobic acts automatically increase; and it's getting worse."