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France votes to pick president
French voters headed to the polls on Sunday for the first round of a presidential election that is expected to mark the end of Nicolas Sarkozy's turbulent term in office.
Predictions of a high abstention rate and strong protest vote left the outcome uncertain, but recent opinion polls pointed to the right-wing incumbent coming second to his Socialist challenger Francois Hollande, AFP reported.
The two 57-year-old political veterans are thus on course to face each other head-to-head in a May 6 run-off, which will decide who runs the country for the next five years.
French polling agencies are permitted to take samples directly from ballot boxes, so accurate voting estimates are made public immediately after polls close.
Polls open at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) in mainland France and will close at 6 p.m., staying open an extra two hours in big cities, media sources said.
The first votes began trickling in on Saturday as polls opened in overseas territories, including the north Atlantic islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon off the coast of Canada.
Early turnout figures for St Pierre showed voting down six percent compared to the 2007 race.
More than 44 million voters are registered but pollsters predict around 25 percent will abstain, a high level by the standards of a French presidential poll and a source of worry to the candidates, especially Hollande.
The first official projections of the result, based on a partial count of ballots cast, will be released at 8 p.m. (1800 GMT) and the country's polling watchdog has threatened to punish any media breaking that embargo with fines and legal action.
A 1977 law bans the publication in France of early voting trends to avoid influencing late voters.
In all, ten candidates are in the race, Hollande and Sarkozy being trailed by far-right flag-bearer Marine Le Pen, hard-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon, veteran centrist Francois Bayrou and a handful of outsiders.
The campaign has run on for months. An average of the last eight polls released ahead of the end of first round campaign at midnight on Friday showed Hollande winning the first round with an average of 28 percent support, against 26.4 percent for Sarkozy.
Opinion polls and campaigning were banned from midnight on Friday, and will restart on Monday in the build-up to the May 6 run-off, which Hollande is expected to win by around 55 percent to 45.
Once the first round is out of the way, Sarkozy and Hollande will face each other in a two week scramble for the line, including a head-to-head televised debate that could be the incumbent's last chance to change his fortunes.
In case of failure, Sarkozy would be the country's first president to lose a fight for re-election in more than 30 years. If Hollande wins, he would become France's first left-wing president since Francois Mitterand, who beat incumbent Valery Giscard-d'Estaing in 1981, according to Reuters.
Hollande has promised less drastic spending cuts than Sarkozy and wants higher taxes on the wealthy to fund state-aided job creation.
France is struggling with feeble economic growth, a gaping trade deficit, 10 percent unemployment and strained public finances that prompted ratings agency Standard & Poor's to cut the country's triple-A credit rating in January.