France voted on Sunday in round one of a presidential ballot where frustration at high unemployment and a weak economy have left Nicolas Sarkozy on track to become the first French leader to lose a re-election bid in more than 30 years.
In a contest driven as much by a dislike of his showy style and failure to create jobs as by policy differences, Sarkozy and Socialist rival Francois Hollande are poised to beat eight other candidates to reach a May 6 runoff, where polls give Hollande a double-digit lead.
Hollande, 57, promises less drastic spending cuts than Sarkozy and wants higher taxes on the wealthy to fund state-aided job creation, in particular a 75 percent upper tax rate on income above 1 million euros (818.40 thousand pounds).
He would be only France's second left-wing leader since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958, and its first since Francois Mitterrand, who beat incumbent Valery Giscard-d'Estaing in 1981 and ruled until 1995.
France needs a radical change of direction, mainly on the economy, said Jean-Noel Harvet, a public sector worker in the northern town of Cambrai, where hundreds queued to cast their vote at the town hall.
Polls close at 6 p.m. (1600 GMT) in some towns and nationwide at 8 p.m., when the first official projections of the result based on a partial count will be released.
Hollande voted early on Sunday in Tulle, a town in central France where he serves as the head of local government for the surrounding rural Correze region.
Here's hoping, he whispered in the ear of an old lady. His partner, journalist Valerie Trierweiler, admitted to reporters she was super-stressed.
Pre-election surveys predicting low turnout were not borne out: 70.6 percent of the electorate had voted by 5 p.m., the interior ministry said, just below the 73.9 percent recorded at the same point in the 2007 election, which was the highest in two decades.
Hollande has called on his supporters to take nothing for granted, mindful of a fiasco for the left in 2002 when record low turnout saw the Socialist candidate pushed out in the first round by the far right.
Sarkozy, also 57, says he is a safer pair of hands for future economic turmoil. But many of the workers and young voters drawn to his 2007 pledge of more pay for more work are deserting him as jobless claims hit a 12 year high.
He and first lady Carla Bruni, who was somberly-dressed but smiling, voted in an affluent Paris district, shaking hands with bystanders but leaving without comment.
Claire Berthemet, a counsellor for handicapped children voting in the northern town of Cambrai, said she would vote for Sarkozy because of his experience during the economic turmoil. He kept our head above the water during the crisis, she said.
But many French people express a distaste for a president who has come to be seen as flashy after his highly publicised marriage to ex-supermodel Bruni early in his term, occasional rude outbursts in public and chumminess with rich executives.
Sarkozy's divisive. Hollande's reassuring, said Helene Boudot, 85, who was glad to have been released from a hospital stay in time to vote in her village of Chailland in western France. She was counting on her son to drive her 100 metres to the local polling station.
EYES ON THIRD PLACE
Investors will be watching to see how well tub-thumbing radical leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon performs. Melenchon, who wants an anti-capitalist revolution, has channelled outrage over the economy to become a popular figure on the campaign trail, vying with far-right leader Marine Le Pen for third place.
Before election weekend the risk premium investors charge to hold French debt over safe-haven German bonds rose to nearly 1.50 percent, betraying fears that Hollande's programme could be pulled leftwards if Melenchon's popularity leads to a strong bloc for the far left after parliamentary elections in June.
Sarkozy has proven to be a more vigorous campaigner than Hollande, whose sober style, for some, lacks panache.
The president's verve at the podium combined with his handling of a shooting drama in southwest France in March saw him claw back some ground in opinion polls last month. But he has since slipped back, leaving Hollande 10 or more points ahead in surveys for the deciding runoff.
Latest opinion polls put Hollande a whisker ahead for the first round, with an average 28 percent support to Sarkozy's 27 percent. Le Pen, who wants to curb immigration and leave the euro, has polled at around 16 percent and Melenchon at 14.
Around half a million expatriate French are expected to vote, up from some 350,000 in the 2007 election. Surveys show them shifting to the left.
Even though we live abroad we still care about our country and it's not in a good state, said Stephanie, who queued up for over an hour with her two children to vote in London.
Pascale, a mother of three, voted for Melenchon at the French consulate in Athens. The crisis made me think about the role of politics, banks and finance, she said. In this period of crisis, I voted further left.
French law bans publication of any results in France before polls close, and the polling watchdog has threatened to punish any media breaking that embargo with fines and legal action.
During the last election, French voters hungry for information crashed the websites of several Swiss and Belgian newspapers.
France is struggling with weak 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.
Sarkozy has played up his credibility as an economic steward after he helped steer the euro zone through the worst of its crisis last year. Hollande has blamed him for the parlous state of France's public finances and for the rating downgrade.
Some investors see a risk that Hollande's focus on tax rises over spending cuts, his slower timetable for balancing the budget and his plan to raise taxation on the financial sector, could drive up French bond yields.
(This story was corrected to fix where Sarkozy voted to Paris in paragraph 12)
(Additional reporting by Brian Love, Daniel Flynn and Catherine Bremer in Paris, Estelle Shirbon in London and Ingrid Melander in Athens; Editing by Peter Graff and Philippa Fletcher)