French voters turned out in force Sunday in the second round of presidential elections that are likely to make Nicolas Sarkozy the 11th European leader to be swept from office by the economic crisis and crown Francois Hollande as the nation's first Socialist president in nearly two decades.
The Interior Ministry said voter participation had reached reached 71.96 percent at 5 p.m. Paris time (11 a.m. EDT), three hours before the polls close, France24 reported.
A heavy police presence and an abundance of portable toilets on the Place de la Bastille in Paris indicated a Hollande victory was expected, the Telegraph reported.
The Bastille, the site of the uprising where the French revolution began in 1789 and the heart of radical Republican France, will be the place where Socialist supporters will gather to celebrate a victory.
The Place de la Concorde, a few hundred yards down the Seine where Sarkozy proclaimed his victory in 2007, was empty, without any signs of the major police operation being undertaken in anticipation of a Socialist victory.
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City workers preparing for the Socialist celebration at the Bastille said one sure sign that the authorities were banking on a Hollande win was the large number of rented portable toilets.
These Portaloos cost money and we're unloading truckload after truckload of them, said Marcel, a contract worker driving a forklift. You don't order this many toilets unless you're serious.
This is where we expect the crowds, said one police officer.
Buoyed by a tide of anger at Sarkozy's inability to rein in rampant unemployment during his five-year term, Hollande was between four and eight points ahead in final opinion polls, Reuters reported.
A wide margin of victory would give the Socialist more authority to pursue his program of adding growth-oriented policies to the austerity effort in France and Europe.
Casting his vote in the town of Tulle in central France, where he was mayor for seven years, Hollande took time to shake hands and kiss voters, many of whom he knows personally.
It will be a long day. I do not know whether it will be a beautiful day, the French will decide on that, Hollande told Reuters, adding that he had slept little.
Sarkozy was greeted by cheering crowds when he arrived to vote at a school in an upscale Paris neighborhood close to the home of his wife Carla Bruni, a singer and former supermodel. We are going to win chanted supporters as the conservative leader briefly clasped the hands of well-wishers.
Both Sarkozy and Hollande would be capable managers of the French economy, but Sarkozy has created too much discord ... That is why I voted Hollande, photographer Gilles Leimdorfer told Reuters in Paris.
Polling stations are open from 8 a.m. (2 a.m. EDT) to 6 p.m. (noon EDT) on Sunday, and two hours later in big cities.
Politicians are not allowed to make public comments on election weekend, but Hollande told reporters on Friday he was worried that his lead over Sarkozy would shrink.
Reliable projections of the result based on a partial vote count will be published as soon as the last polling stations close. Media that publish exit polls or partial results before that risk fines and legal action.
Hollande voter Sylvie, a head nurse based in Paris, said she feared Sunday's result could give Hollande a lower margin than opinion polls have suggested. The electorate has always been very evenly split, so we could head for something more towards 51-49 percent, she said.
Despite shaving a couple of points off Hollande's lead in the last days of a frenetic campaign, Sarkozy's own aides privately admit it would require a miracle for him to turn the odds in his favor and clinch a second term.
I'd say he has one chance in six, a member of Sarkozy's inner circle told Reuters on condition of anonymity shortly before campaigning drew to a halt on Friday.
BNP Paribas economist Dominique Barbet said that uncertainty about the election outcome was extremely low.
Hollande, a mild-mannered and popular career politician, has held a steady lead for weeks after outlining a comprehensive program in January based on raising taxes, especially on high earners, to finance spending and keep the public deficit capped.
As much as his own program, he is benefiting from a tide of anti-Sarkozy sentiment due in part to the incumbent's showy and occasionally arrogant personal style and in part to anger over the same economic gloom that has brought down leaders from Britain to Portugal.
Many Sarkozy supporters said that it is more important for a president to be competent than to be likeable.Sarkozy has managed the crisis really well. Thanks to him we are not in the same situation as Greece and Spain, driving school instructor Soizic La Riviere told Reuters in Paris.
Sarkozy, sometimes called the hare in the race and his rival the tortoise, launched his campaign late and unveiled proposals one by one in high-energy speeches that swerved hard to the right as he sought to win back low-income voters that polls show have ditched him for either the radical left or extreme right.
His aggressive rallies and promises to rein in immigrant numbers, hold policy referendums, crack down on tax exiles and make the unemployed retrain as a condition of getting benefits did not reduce Hollande's lead. Sarkozy surprised many by failing to land a knockout punch on his rival in a televised debate.
In two further blows in the last days of the race, both far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who came third in the first round with 17.9 percent, and centrist Francois Bayrou, who came fifth with 9.1 percent, refused to endorse Sarkozy.