First round voting begins in overseas territories as incumbent Nicholas Sarkozy appears set to face a stern test.
More than 44 million French voters are to go to the polls for the first round of a presidential election that represents a serious threat to incumbent Nicholas Sarkozy‘s tenure in the post.
While predictions of a high abstention rate and a strong protest vote have left the outcome uncertain, opinion polls point towards Francois Hollande, Sarkozy’s main Socialist challenger, replacing his conservative rival.
The result of that vote will decide who is France’s president for the next five years.
Voting began on Saturday in France’s overseas territories, which are mainly islands dotted around the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
On Sunday, voting will continue in 85,000 polling stations across the country’s European mainland. Voting will begin at 8am local time (06:00 GMT) and continue until 8pm (18:00 GMT).
Voting estimates will then be immediately published, giving what has been a traditionally accurate assessment of how the polls will stand once results are finalised.
In all, 10 candidates are in the race, with Hollande and Sarkozy trailed by far-right leader Marine Le Pen, hard-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon and veteran centrist Francois Bayrou. A handful of outsiders round out the field.
Once the first round is over, the top two candidates will face each other in the final poll, with the run-up to that including a televised debate.
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Hollande says that Sarkozy has trapped France in a spiral of austerity and job losses, and has called for the European response to the debt crisis to be more pro-growth.
Sarkozy, meanwhile, says that his rival is weak-willed and would spark panic in financial markets by adopting an approach that involves increased government spending.
Al Jazeera’s Tim Friend, reporting from Paris, said that Sarkozy faces a stiff challenge due to his “extraordinary” unpopularity.
“A lot of the people voting will be putting their ballot paper into the ballot box more against Sarkozy than perhaps for the candidate they eventually vote for,” he said.
Since Saturday, there has been no sign of any of the rhetoric that has characterised an increasingly heated contest, as French law prohibits campaigning and opinion polls on the eve of voting.
Voters went about their business without being accosted by pamphleteers, the campaigns’ websites, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds were left without updates and broadcasters had to find other subjects to interview.