PARIS - French voters went to polling stations on Sunday, May 6, to give their final verdict in the hard-fought presidential battle between right-wing incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and his Socialist challenger Francois Hollande.
"Uncertainty about the outcome of the vote has fallen to an extremely low level," BNP Paribas economist Dominique Barbet told Reuters.
Polling stations opened on 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) to 8 p.m. (1600 GMT) on Sunday, and two hours later in big cities to more than 46 million eligible voters.France Election...Scapegoated Muslims (Special Folder)
Both candidates reached the second round of voting as Hollande won the first round with 28.63 percent of the votes to Sarkozy's 27.18 percent.
Since the results of the first round, both candidates have been fighting for the votes of those whose candidates failed to make the run-off, mainly far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
Le Pen, who won almost 18 percent in the first round, has said she will cast a blank ballot and observers expect many of her supporters to do the same.
The polling institute Ifop, however, forecasts that 55 percent of her voters would back Sarkozy and 19 percent Hollande.
Campaigning for the April-May election has been marred by anti-Muslim rhetoric, with candidates toning up their tones against Muslim immigrants and halal meat in a desperate effort to court far-right voters.
The anti-Muslim rhetoric has escalated after a spate of killings in Toulouse, from which Muslim leaders have distanced their faith.
Following the shootings, France has expelled a number of Muslim imams and banned the entry of others on claims of preaching hatred in the country.
France is home to six million Muslims, Europe's largest minority.
Final opinion polls conducted on Friday suggested the still energetic Sarkozy may have closed the gap on the frontrunner to as little as four percent.
Despite shaving a couple of points off Hollande's lead, the conservative's own aides privately admitted it would require a miracle for him to turn the odds in his favor and clinch a second term.
"He's like a runner - he won't consider it's over until the very end, but 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.
Hollande campaigned as a consensus-building moderate focused on restoring economic growth and is expected to become France's first Socialist president since Francois Mitterrand died in office in 1995.
Sarkozy has trailed consistently in opinion polls for the last six months, but fought a bruising campaign focused on mobilizing voters fearful that immigration and globalization threaten the French way of life.
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.
The left has not won a presidential election in a quarter of a century, but with France mired in low growth and rising joblessness, opinion polls had long predicted the left would beat the right-wing incumbent.
If he loses, Sarkozy will become the first French president since Valery Giscard d'Estaing in 1981 not to be re-elected.
Reproduced with permission from OnIslam.net