France presidential election: Voters begin casting ballots

People line up to vote at a polling station in Martres-Tolosane, southwestern France, during the first round of the French presidential election. Picture: AFP Photo
People line up to vote at a polling station in Martres-Tolosane, southwestern France, during the first round of the French presidential election. Picture: AFP Photo
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French voters have started casting ballots for the presidential election under heightened security in a tense first-round poll that is seen as a test for the spread of populism around the world.

More than 60,000 polling stations opened on Sunday for voters who will choose between 11 candidates in the most unpredictable election in decades.

Security was tight after a deadly attack on the Champs-Elysees on Thursday in which a police officer and a gunman were killed.

The government has mobilised more than 50,000 police and gendarmes to protect polling stations, with an additional 7,000 soldiers on patrol.

The vote “is really important, mainly because we really need a change in this country with all the difficulties we are facing and terrorism,” said Paris resident Alain Richaud, who was waiting to cast his vote.

It is the first time in living memory a presidential election is taking place during a state of emergency, which was put in place after the Paris attacks of November 2015.

Opinion polls point to a tight race among the four leading contenders vying to advance to the May 7 presidential run-off, when the top two candidates face off.

Polls suggest far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, an independent centrist and former economy minister, were in the lead.

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However, conservative Francois Fillon, a former prime minister who was embroiled in a scandal over alleged fake jobs, appeared to be closing the gap, as was far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.

Unpopular incumbent President Francois Hollande made the unusual move last year of pledging to not stand for re-election.

France’s 10 per cent unemployment rate, its struggling economy and security were issues that top concerns for the 47 million eligible voters.

The 11 candidates are voting throughout the day.

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Hardline right-winger Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, who rails against Europe, was the first of the presidential candidates to vote in his constituency in the leafy Paris suburbs.

Far-left candidate Nathalie Arthaud cast her ballot soon after in the Paris suburb of Pantin.

Mr Fillon will vote in Paris but his Welsh-born wife Penelope - who has been handed preliminary charges for her role in the fake jobs scandal that rocked her husband’s campaign - voted 155 miles away near their 14th-century manor house in Sarthe.

Outgoing president Mr Hollande cast his vote in his political fiefdom of Tulle in Correze.

The Socialist candidate is 49-year-old Benoit Hamon, who is not among the presidential frontrunners.

If Ms Le Pen or Mr Melenchon win a spot in the run-off, it will be seen as a victory for the rising wave of populism reflected by the votes for Donald Trump and Brexit.

Mr Macron and Mr Fillon are committed to European unity and would reform employment rules.

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