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France election: voters go to the polls in wide-open contest

Voting is under way in the first round of an unpredictable French presidential election whose outcome could prove crucial for the future of a deeply divided country and a nervous European Union.
Less than two days after a gunman shot dead a police officer on the Champs-Elysées in an attack for which Islamic State claimed responsibility, France’s 47 million registered voters – nearly a quarter of whom are still undecided – go to the polls amid heightened security.
The top two finishers from the 11 candidates in the first round will advance to a runoff on 7 May to decide the next president after a tense and tight election dominated by the economy, jobs, immigration and national identity.
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Squeezed by Jean-Luc Mélenchon on one side and Emmanuel Macron on the other, the presidential contest could mean destruction for the Socialist party With campaigning banned on Saturday, Friday’s final polls showed the four leading candidates – independent centrist Emmanuel Macron, far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen, scandal-hit conservative François Fillon and hard-left veteran Jean-Luc Mélenchon – so close that any two could go through.
France’s interior ministry said turnout at midday was 28.54%, a slight increase on the previous poll in 2012 and well up on the record low 21.4% in 2002, when Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie advanced to the runoff in a major upset. Analysts have said the abstention level could play a big part in this year’s vote.
Topless demonstrators from the Femen activist group briefly caused a commotion as they staged a protest against Le Pen outside a polling station in the northern town of Henin-Beaumont where she was heading to vote.
Macron, meanwhile, was the image of serenity as he posed for selfies with voters after casting his ballot in the popular coastal resort town of Le Touquet in northern France alongside his wife, Brigitte
Mélenchon and Fillon voted in Paris, but Fillon’s wife Penelope – like her husband under formal investigation in the fake jobs scandal that hit the centre-right Les Républicains party’s campaign – cast her ballot near the couple’s 14th-century manor house in the Sarthe department, west of the capital.
The unpopular outgoing president, François Hollande, who is not standing for re-election, voted in his political fiefdom of Tulle in Correze in the south-west. The Socialist party’s current presidential candidate, Benoît Hamon, cast his ballot in Trappes, a Paris suburb.
The poll is being widely seen as a litmus test for the strength of a populist, nativist and anti-establishment wave that produced the twin shocks of the UK’s Brexit vote and the election of Trump in the US, and could also be decisive for the future of the EU.
Both Le Pen and Mélenchon have said they want to radically renegotiate France’s relationship with Europe and could hold referendums on a French exit from the bloc. Le Pen also wants to quit the euro and restore the franc.
Voters were queuing early at polling stations in Paris. The vote “is really important, mainly because we really need a change in this country with all the difficulties we are facing and terrorism,” said one resident, Alain Richaud.
“It’s definitely risky, but I have faith in the result even if an extreme candidate qualifies for the second round,” said Beatrice Schopflin.
Financial markets are already nervous about the vote’s outcome, fearing capital flight or defaults should the far right or far left triumph. France holds two rounds of legislative elections in June, however, and without a parliamentary majority, any new president’s powers would in practice be limited.
Macron, a former investment banker and economy minister who says he is neither right nor left but wants to reboot France’s failed political system, is a fervent pro-European whose victory would be cheered in Brussels.
Fillon, a socially conservative former prime minister, has promised Thatcher-style shock economic reforms. He too is committed to EU unity.
France’s overseas territories and French residents in the US and Canada voted on Saturday so as not to be influenced by the results of the election on the mainland, which will be known on Sunday evening from about 7pm BST.
French media reported that voters queued for up to three hours in Montreal in a line that stretched for over 2km, suggesting an exceptionally high turnout after arguably the most remarkable election campaign in memory.
More than 50,000 police and 7,000 soldiers will be on duty for polling day in France, which has been in a state of emergency for more than 18 months after a wave of Islamist attacks that have killed 239 people since January 2015.
Analysts were divided on whether the shooting on Thursday night of the officer Xavier Jugelé by Karim Cheurfi, who had served 14 years in prison for violent crimes including the attempted murder of two police officers, would affect the vote.
Le Pen moved swiftly to position herself as the hardline candidate on Islamist extremism, calling for France to take back control of its borders from the EU immediately and deport all foreigners on its terror watchlist. “This war against us is ceaseless and merciless,” she said, accusing the Socialist government of a “cowardly” response to the threat. But the prime minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, angrily accused her of trying to exploit the killing.
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Fillon stressed his previous experience and promised an “iron-fisted” approach, saying some politicians “hadn’t taken the full measure of the evil”. Macron also accused his rivals of trying to capitalise on the attack, and urged voters not to give in to fear.
All three candidates cancelled their final campaign events on Friday over security concerns and out of respect for the murdered police officer. Three suspects close to the attacker remain in custody, the Paris prosecutor’s office said on Saturday.
In a further sign of the rising tensions in the country, a man wielding a knife caused widespread panic at the Gare du Nord station in Paris on Saturday. He was quickly arrested and no one was hurt, police said.

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