Early results estimated the RN would take 23.2 percent of vote, over 21.9 percent for the Renaissance coalition that Macron’s Republic on the Move with the Modem and other centrist and liberal parties.
Final results were to be confirmed later in the evening.
The main surprise for the vote is the result for the Green party, credited with 12.8 percent of the vote, while right-wing Les Républicains were estimated to obtain a historically low score of 8.3 percent.
The hard-left France Unbowed and the Socialist Party were both expected to receive approximately 6.7 percent of votes, clearing the 5-percent threshold needed to send part of its list to sit in the European parliament.
The French vote was also marked by a rise in turnout, with participation predicted to be between 52 and 54 percent, compared with 43 percent in the last EU election of 2014.
Macron vows to 'intensify' presidency
Macron had positioned the campaign as a fight between pro-EU progressives and Eurosceptic and far-right nationalists, so coming in second to Le Pen’s party, even by a narrow margin, was a symbolic blow.
But the presidential camp downplayed the significance of the result, with lead candidate Nathalie Loiseau urging pro-EU forces to “unite and defend the interests” of Europe, and not to give up the bloc to “those who want to unbuild it”.
Macron’s aides also said there would be no significant change in policy direction for the next part of the presidential term.
“[The president’s] objective is to intensify Act II of his presidency at the national level, so there is no change in policy to be expected,” an official from the presidential office said.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said the result showed the political map remains redrawn along the lines of the 2017 presidential race, when the traditional centre-left versus centre-right give way to a duel between Macron and Le Pen.
“The far right is consolidating its position, and many of our compatriots believe the solution is to turn to the extremes. It’s a strong message and we have heard it.”
Le Pen calls on Macron to dissolve parliament
Le Pen wasted little time in declaring victory and said the result “confirms the new nationalist-globalist division” in France and beyond.
She said Macron “has no other choice but, at the very least, to dissolve the National Assembly,” France's lower house of parliament, and also called for the forming of a group of nationalist parties in the European parliament.
Jordan Bardella, the head of the RN campaign, expressed “immense satisfaction” at the result.
“The French people have made their voice heard and send a very clear message and lesson in humiliation to the President,” said the 23-year-old candidate.
But the party did not appear to gain from anti-Macron sentiment expressed through six months of Yellow Vest protests.
If the early result was confirmed, the RN’s vote share was actually down slightly from the 2014 election, when it received 24.86 percent of votes.
Breakthrough for Greens, setbacks for others
The main breakthrough in the election was for France’s Green party EELV, whose leader Yannick Jadot hailed a “green wave in which we are the main players”.
“French voters sent a clear signal that they want ecology to be at the heart of our lives, at the heart of politics, and this message was matched all around Europe,” said Jadot in reference to strong showings for Green parties around the continent.
In the fourth position was the traditional right-wing party Les Républicains, whose leaders admitted the result was disappointing.
“The result is obviously not what we hoped for,” conceded party leader Laurent Wauquiez, who also accused Macron of being responsible for the “progression” of the RN.
Manon Aubry, head of the list of hard-left movement France Unbowed, said the result was “disappointing, considering the hopes and hard work we put into the campaign,” but also noted the movement had boosted its presence in the European parliament.
Raphael Glucksmann, head of a coalition including the Socialist Party, said the result showed there were “millions of voters” seeking an alternative to Macron.
“It’s impossible to continue this suffocating face-off between liberals and nationalists,” Glucksmann said. “We need to build an alternative, another possibility, another way, and this is what we are going to try to propose to our allies on the left.”