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Polls open in France for first round of presidential election

Eric Feferberg, AFP | Voters cast their ballots at a polling station in Le Touquet, northern France, on April 23, 2017, during the first round of the presidential election.

Voters on Sunday are casting their ballots in the first election in France’s modern history to take place under a state of emergency. Security has been tightened across the country with many polling stations guarded by armed police and soldiers.

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Polls opened at 8am local time across the country in the first round of a high-stakes presidential election that is being closely watched by the international community.

Around 46.87 million voters are registered to vote in 66,546 polling stations, several of them protected – for the first time in recent memory -- by armed police and soldiers.

The tightened security measures follow an attack on the world famous Champs-Élysées Thursday night, when a gunman killed a policeman and wounded three others, including two policemen. The attack was claimed by the Islamic State group.

Voting proceeded at a brisk pace Sunday morning, with lines forming outside some Paris voting stations before polls opened.

Reporting from a polling station in Paris’s 15th arrondissement, FRANCE 24’s Florence Villeminot said the mood was “very serious” as Parisians arrived to cast their ballots. “People have measured the importance of this day, round one of the presidential election. The polling station opened at 8am and there were already people lined up to vote. We spoke to many of these voters who said it’s been such an uncertain campaign, many feel relieved that it is finally election day.”

The voter turnout at midday was 28.5 percent, according to the French interior ministry, up from 28.2 percent in the 2012 presidential election.

Another test of post-war liberal order

French voters are choosing from 11 presidential candidates in a hotly contested race that is widely viewed as yet another test of the post-war liberal economic order following the shock victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential election and the Brexit vote in the UK.

The favourites in the first round are far-right’s Marine Le Pen, centrist Emmanuel Macron, the centre-right’s François Fillon and extreme left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Who are the candidates in France's presidential race?

If none of the candidates win an absolute majority, the two leading candidates in Sunday’s vote head for a run-off on May 7.

The economy, security and France’s future in the European Union were dominant issues in the 2017 presidential race, with two of the candidates – Le Pen and Mélenchon – running on a nationalist, anti-EU platform.

France is the second-largest economy in the EU and its standing on the world diplomatic stage has increased the stakes of the presidential race across the nation and the continent, as well as the globe.

Opinion polls on the campaign trail have consistently shown a tight race, putting the focus Sunday on voter turnout.

A scandal-hit campaign along with widespread distrust of the existing political and economic systems could result in about 30 percent of the electorate either failing to vote or arriving at the polls unsure of whom to vote for.

Tight security across the country

Security has also been a dominant theme, with Le Pen linking the issue to her party’s anti-immigrant agenda.

France has suffered a spate of deadly terrorist attacks since 2015 and the threat of terrorism is “permanently high", French Interior Minister Matthias Fekl told the weekly Le Journal du Dimanche last weekend.

Fekl’s words may have proved prescient. A few days after the announcement, police arrested two suspected radicals in the southern city of Marseille who they said were planning an “imminent attack". The General Directorate for Internal Security (DGSI) warned the main presidential candidates about specific threats against them and their campaign headquarters.

French daily Le Monde reported that Fekl asked municipalities to make sure that officials at every polling station have a direct telephone number for security forces. “I ask each of your services, especially in rural areas where the voting points are remote from each other, to be ready,” he reportedly urged.

Some localities are reinforcing national efforts. In Nice, where a truck ploughed through a crowd celebrating the July 14 holiday last year, killing 86 people, the city will deploy its own security agents at each of the 252 voting stations, in addition to municipal police.

“Never before have there been such threats in an election campaign in France,” said Christian Estrosi, deputy mayor of Nice.

Polls close at 7pm in most parts of France, but in Paris and other big cities, they remain open until 8pm local time. French overseas voters – including in France’s overseas territories such as French Guiana, French Polynesia and Guadeloupe – cast their ballots on Saturday.

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