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Decision day for France in cliffhanger election

French voters are going to the polls in the first step of a nail-biting two-round process to elect France’s next president.

The election, which will choose a leader with some of the greatest executive powers among western democracies, has turned into a four-way cliffhanger after months of campaigning marked by embezzlement scandals, terror attacks, the collapse of old mainstream parties and the rise of candidates from the extreme right and left.

On Sunday evening, when polling stations close, France will discover the two frontrunners who will face each other in a runoff on May 7. The names will provide an indication as to whether the eurozone’s second-largest economy will succumb to the populist tide shaking the postwar liberal order in Europe.

The French have elected their president directly since 1965 (their first directly elected president was Charles de Gaulle, who was the instigator of this reform and won re-election that year). On Sunday, more than 45m registered voters will be able to choose between 11 candidates in polling stations open from 8am till 7pm or 8pm in the big cities.

Only when the polling stations close will the main television news channels be able to disclose the two frontrunners for the second round, using estimates they have commissioned from pollsters based on partial results from a sample of polling stations and algorithms.

Given how close the four main contenders have been in opinion surveys published in the final hours of the campaign, a delay in announcing the first-round winners is possible, pollsters have warned. The definitive vote counts will be published by the Constitutional Council, which usually happens later in the evening.

By noon on Sunday, 28.54 per cent of voters had cast their ballots, slightly more than in 2012 (28.29 per cent), but lower than in 2007 (31.21 per cent), according to the interior ministry.

On Friday, the last day of campaigning, polls showed that Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year-old former economy minister running with a new centrist party, and Marine Le Pen, the far-right National Front party leader, would qualify for the second round, with about 24 per cent and 22 per cent of the votes respectively.

But François Fillon, whose campaign has been plagued by allegations of embezzlement, seemed to have made a slight recovery in the final days, closely followed by far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon at around 19 per cent.

The number of undecided voters is high: on Friday, nearly 30 per cent of voters were still unsure whether they would vote. If they all decided to stay away from the polls, that would be the highest rate of abstention since 2002 when Jean-Marie Le Pen, Ms Le Pen’s father, qualified for the presidential run-off. And a quarter of those who said they intended to vote were still unsure of their choice.

The killing of a police officer in central Paris on Thursday night by a man who seemed to have claimed allegiance to Isis, has added to the volatile mood of an extraordinary election.

In the final 24 hours of the campaign, Ms Le Pen and Mr Fillon seized on the attack to put forward their tough law and order measures intended to tackle the homegrown jihadi threat that has hit France multiple times since 2012. Pollsters and political analysts speculated that the assault could hurt Mr Macron, whose experience in government was two years as economic adviser and later two years as economy minister under socialist President François Hollande.

The deadly assault, in which the assailant was shot dead by police, was the latest of many twists and turns in the campaign.

Mr Fillon, a free market conservative, stunned his rivals with a clear victory in the centre-right Republican primary. After five years of a deeply unpopular socialist presidency, he became the instant favourite. But two months later, claims that he had employed his wife and children in fake parliamentary jobs and accepted expensive gifts from businessmen severely damaged his campaign.

Mr Hollande made history by becoming the first president of the fifth republic not to seek a second term. But rather than choosing a like-minded social democrat to run as his successor, socialist sympathisers backed one of his foremost critics from the left, Benoît Hamon, in a primary. Mr Hamon has collapsed in the polls as Mr Macron, a boyish former banker who has never held elected office, seized the centre ground to become a serious contender with his party En Marche, which he says is neither on the right nor on the left.

But in the latter stages of the race, he lost some of his novelty to Mr Mélenchon, a 65-year-old hard-left stalwart, who has surged in the polls with measures including a 90 per cent income tax rate and a defiant stance on the EU.

Meanwhile, Ms Le Pen, who advocates an exit from the eurozone and wants to reinstate systematic border controls and crack down on immigration, has remained high in the polls despite facing allegations of misuse of EU parliamentary funds. However, she seemed to be losing momentum slightly in the final days of the campaign.

Via FT