More than 44 million French voters are going to the polls for the first round of a presidential election that represents a serious threat to incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy’s tenure in the post.
While predictions of a high abstention rate and a strong protest vote have left the outcome uncertain, there was a steady flow of voters on Sunday morning across France.
France’s interior ministry announced 70.59 per cent voter turnout by 5pm.
The number is considered relatively high, but slightly less than the exceptional 2007 turnout for the same time.
Not all the voters were enthusiastic. Wilson Cohen, who had just voted in the 4th district of Paris, told Al Jazeera that he has little faith in the candidates.
“They [the candidates] are all the same. As soon as they get into power, they forget about us,” he said. “A lot of people have barely enough money to feed themselves after they pay their rent. But no one is talking about that.”
Sylvie Renaud Poulet, meanwhile, told Al Jazeera that she was “very afraid” about what the election results might be.
“The big issue [of the election] is to save France and to save Europe,” she said.
“I’m very concerned that many people will vote for candidates who are not reasonable, who offer things that are not possible in the current state of France.”
The result of that vote will decide who will be France’s president for the next five years.
The two leading candidates to make it through to the runoff vote on May 6 are Nicolas Sarkozy, running for the centre-right Union for a Popular Movement, and Francois Hollande, running for the centre-left Socialist Party.
“This is an election that will weigh on the future of Europe. That’s why many people are watching us,” said Hollande after voting in Tulle, a town in central France.
“They’re wondering not so much what the winner’s name will be, but especially what policies will follow. That’s why I’m not in a competition just of personalities. I am in a competition in which I must give new breath of life to my country and a new commitment to Europe.”
Sarkozy voted at a polling station in western Paris on Sunday morning, but did not speak to the media.
Francois Bayrou, the centrist candidate, voted at 8:45am local time (6:45 GMT), the first of the candidates to cast his ballot.
In all, 10 candidates are in the race, with Hollande and Sarkozy trailed by far-right leader Marine Le Pen, hard-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon. A handful of outsiders round out the field.
Voting began on Saturday in France’s oversees territories, which are mainly islands dotted around the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
These results, like all polls and new opinion polls, are under strict embargo until 8pm local time (18:00 GMT). Sunday evening. By midday afternoon, however, some Belgian media had posted the first results, as they had done in 2007.
Since Saturday, there has been no sign of any of the rhetoric that has characterised an increasingly heated contest, as French law prohibits campaigning and opinion polls on the eve of voting.
Voters went about their business without being accosted by pamphleteers, the campaigns’ websites, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds were left without updates and broadcasters had to find other subjects to interview.
Candidates in fray
Voting inside France takes place on Sunday in 85,000 polling stations across the country’s European mainland. Casting of ballots began at 8am local time and will continue until 8pm.
Voting estimates will then be immediately published, giving what has been a traditionally accurate assessment of how the polls will stand once results are finalised.
Once the first round is over, the top two candidates will face each other in the final poll, with the run-up to that including a televised debate.
Hollande says that Sarkozy has trapped France in a spiral of austerity and job losses, and has called for the European response to the debt crisis to be more pro-growth.
Sarkozy, meanwhile, says that his rival is weak-willed and would spark panic in financial markets by adopting an approach that involves increased government spending.
Al Jazeera’s Tim Friend, reporting from Paris, said Sarkozy faced a stiff challenge due to his “extraordinary” unpopularity.
“A lot of the people voting will be putting their ballot paper into the ballot box more against Sarkozy than perhaps for the candidate they eventually vote for,” he said.
Yasmine Ryan reported from Paris. Follow her for latest updates: @yasmineryan