PARIS - Amid economic woes and anti-Muslim sentiments, French voters went to polling stations on Sunday, April 22, in the first round of an anticipated ballot to elect a new president.
"This is an election that will weigh on the future of Europe. That's why many people are watching us," socialist candidate Francois Hollande told reporters after voting in Tulle, a town in central France, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported.
"They're wondering not so much what the winner's name will be, but especially what policies will follow."
Incumbent president Nicolas Sarkozy and his former supermodel wife Carla Bruni also voted in Paris' plush 16th district, a stronghold of his right-wing UMP party.
Hollande, Sarkozy and far-right leader Marine Le Pen are among ten candidates vying in the April-May election.
Polls open at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) in mainland France and will close at 6 p.m., staying open an extra two hours in big cities.
The vote began in France's far-flung overseas territories a day earlier.
French polling agencies are permitted to take samples directly from ballot boxes, so accurate voting estimates are made public immediately polls close.
More than 44 million voters are registered but pollsters predict around 25 percent will abstain, a high level by the standards of a French presidential poll and a source of worry to the candidates.
Early turnout figures for the Atlantic island of St Pierre showed voting down six percent compared to the 2007 race.
Voting was also down by about one percent in Martinique, but it was up two percent in French Guyana.
Muslims have been a main theme in electoral rallies by French candidates in the run-up for the vote.
Candidates have toned up their tones against Muslim immigrants into France as well as 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.
Many believe that economy could doom Sarkozy's chances to win a second term in office.
"We have to get rid of (Nicolas) Sarkozy," said Marc Boitel, a trombone player taking part in a street protest ahead of Sunday's vote.
"People just want jobs."
Sarkozy, 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 have hit their highest level in 12 years.
Many French people also express a distaste for a president who has come to be seen as flashy following his highly publicizied marriage to Bruni early in his term, occasional rude outbursts in public and his chumminess with rich executives.
Sarkozy's rival 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 ($1.32 million).
He would become France's first left-wing president since Francois Mitterand, who beat incumbent Valery Giscard-d'Estaing in 1981.
Opinion polls showed that Hollande would win the first round with an average of 28 percent support, against 26.4 percent for Sarkozy.Far-right candidate Le Pen was third with an average of 15.75 percent, followed by Communist-backed Jean-Luc Melenchon of the Left Front with 13.75 percent and centrist Francois Bayrou with 10.1 percent.