Emmanuel Macron – an independent centrist – won first place ahead of National Front leader Marine Le Pen.
The result will have major implications for Britain and its departure from the EU.
Miss Le Pen wants to completely renegotiate France’s relationship with Brussels while Mr Macron wants closer links.
According to France’s Interior Ministry, 46 million people voted in the first stage of the elections which knocked the traditional Right and Left parties out of the running for the first time in 60 years.
With 97 per cent of the vote counted, Macron achieved 23.9 per cent, followed by Le Pen on 21.4. A total of 36.7million voted, a turnout of 78.2 per cent.
But it is thought that Le Pen’s chances of winning the second round are limited as supporters for Republican candidate Francois Fillon, who conceded but has gained 19.9 per cent of the votes, will support Macron.
However, far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, who gained 19.6 per cent, refused to concede until the final results of first-round vote were announced.
Macron took to the stage in Paris earlier, with his wife Brigitte, and urged national unity against Le Pen.
To chants of ‘Macron president!’ and ‘We’re going to win,’ Macron began his speech by paying tribute to his opponents, and praised his supporters for his lightning rise.
He said: ‘We have turned a page in French political history,’ and added he wants to gather ‘the largest possible’ support before May 7.
Macron acknowledged widespread anger at traditional parties and promised ‘new transformations’ in French politics.
At a rally last night, Le Pen told her supporters she is offering ‘the great alternative’ in the presidential race.