France Votes In Cliffhanger Presidential Election

The outcome will be monitored as a sign of whether the populist tide, behind Brexit & Trump’s rise, is still rising.

Polls opened in France on Sunday, for the first round of the presidential elections that are crucial to the future of Europe and a closely-watched test of voters' anger with the political establishment.

Nearly 47 million voters will decide, under tight security, whether to back a pro-EU centrist newcomer, a scandal-ridden veteran conservative who wants to slash public spending, a far-left eurosceptic admirer of Fidel Castro or appoint France's first woman president, to shut borders and ditch the euro.

The outcome will be anxiously monitored around the world as a sign of whether the populist tide that saw Britain vote to leave the EU and Donald Trump's election in the United States is still rising, or starting to ebb.

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Emmanuel Macron, 39, a centrist ex-banker who set up his party just a year ago, is the opinion poll favourite to win the first round and beat far-right National Front chief Marine Le Pen in the two-person run-off on 7 May.

For them to win the top two qualifying positions on Sunday would represent a seismic shift in the political landscape, as the second round would feature neither of the mainstream parties that have governed France for decades.

But conservative Francois Fillon is making a bit of a comeback after being plagued for months by a fake jobs scandal, and leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon’s ratings have surged in recent weeks. Any two of the four is seen as having a chance to qualify for the run-off.

The seven other candidates, including the ruling Socialist party's Benoit Hamon, two Trotskyists, three fringe nationalists and a former shepherd-turned-centrist lawmaker are lagging very far behind in opinion polls.

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Months of campaigning has been dominated by scandals which have left many voters agonising over their choice.

Turnout figures for the first round of the election showed a 28.54 percentage participation rate by midday local time, (1000 GMT) the Interior Ministry said, slightly above the corresponding rate in the 2012 vote.

The 28.54 percent compared to 28.29 percent in 2012 at the same hour, and compared to midday turnout rates of 31.21 percent in 2007 and 21.40 percent in 2002.

“Cheering Madly”?

Bankers and brokers in Paris and far beyond are expected to be glued to their screens all evening. The possibility of a Le Pen-Melenchon run-off is not the most likely scenario but is one which alarms them.

While Macron wants to further beef up the euro zone, Le Pen has told supporters “the EU will die.” She wants to return to the Franc, re-denominate the country’s debt stock, tax imports and reject international treaties.

Melenchon also wants to radically overhaul the European Union and hold a referendum on whether to leave the bloc.

Le Pen or Melenchon would struggle, in parliamentary elections in June, to win a majority to carry out such radical moves, but their growing popularity worries both investors and France's EU partners.

Wolfgang Schaeuble, German Finance MinisterIt is no secret that we will not be cheering madly should Sunday’s result produce a second round between Le Pen and Melenchon.

If either Macron or Fillon were victorious, each would face challenges.

For Macron, a big question would be whether he could win a majority in parliament in June. Fillon, though likely to struggle less to get a majority, would likely be dogged by an embezzlement scandal, in which he denies wrongdoing.

(With inputs from Reuters.)