Centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron has taken the lead for the first time in polling before the French presidential election, beating the far right’s Marine Le Pen in the initial round.

The Harris Interactive poll showed Macron taking 26% of the vote on 23 April – a six-point gain in two weeks – compared with 25% for National Front leader Le Pen, who had long been leading in the first round.

In the likely event that no one wins an outright majority, a run-off between the two top candidates will be held on 7 May. The Harris poll shows Macron would take 65% of that vote to Le Pen’s 35%.

Macron’s lead in Thursday’s poll comes as a growing list of backers from both the left and the centre throw their support behind the 39-year-old former economy minister who is trying to upend France’s traditional politics.

Though no polls currently show Le Pen winning, anti-immigration nationalist is hoping to emulate the shock success of Donald Trump in US presidential elections last year.

In a boost to his campaign on Wednesday, Macron won the backing of Socialist former Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë who called him “a reformist, a European and a realist”.

Delanoë, who oversaw the French capital from 2001 to 2014, told France Inter radio he backed Macron because it was essential to “throw the most weight possible behind the candidate who can beat Madame Le Pen in the first round”.

His stance on the prospect of a Le Pen presidency was echoed by France’s ambassador to Japan, who on Wednesday broke diplomatic protocol by stating publicly that he would refuse to serve if she won. “If the French tragedy comes to pass and leads to her election, I would withdraw from all my diplomatic functions,” Thierry Dana, 60, wrote in a column in Le Monde newspaper.

Macron, a former investment banker who quit the Socialist government in August to prepare a bid for the presidency, has risen fast in opinion polls, but has never won elected office.

In remarks on International Women’s Day on Wednesday, he suggested he would ideally name a woman as prime minister if he were to win the keys to the Elysée Palace. “To be honest, it’s too easy to say it this evening. But I’ve spoken to others, starting with men, and that’s what I wish really,” he said, when asked if he would name a female PM at a public rally in Paris.

An already unpredictable French election has become even harder to call given the legal woes afflicting the conservative challenger François Fillon, who is embroiled in a “fake jobs” scandal.

In another blow, the investigative paper Le Canard Enchainé published new claims late on Tuesday that the scandal-hit Fillon had failed to declare an interest-free loan of €50,000 (£43,000) from a billionaire friend.

Macron still has his detractors though, with veteran conservative former prime minster Alain Juppé describing him this week as “politically naive”.

Macron told AFP in an interview on Tuesday that he would defend France’s middle classes, which he said had been ignored by the left and right.

He claimed both the outgoing Socialist government under President Francois Hollande – in which he served – and their right-wing opponents had let down the middle classes, assailed by job cuts and an increasing tax burden.


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