Polls are open across France in an election that is one of the closest watched in decades, with 11 candidates, ranging from the extreme right to the extreme left, vying for the French presidency.
Tight security is in place after a terrorist attack in Paris just days before the poll in which nationalist, anti-Islamist candidate Marine Le Pen is a front-runner.
About 50,000 police officers backed by 7,000 soldiers, including special forces, were deployed to the streets for security following the attack claimed by the Islamist State terrorist group. The shooting Thursday along the iconic Champs-Elysees in the heart of Paris left one police officer dead and several other people injured.
Pre-election polls close
Leading in pre-election polls has been Emmanuel Macron, a center-left former Economy Minister who is pro-Europe and pro-business with close ties to unpopular Socialist President Francois Hollande. His appeal lies mainly in France’s prosperous urban areas where globalism has benefited many.
A close second has been Le Pen, who wants to end most immigration to France, especially from Muslim countries. She also wants France to leave the European Union. Her strongholds are largely in formerly industrial areas of France where unemployment is high and so is disillusionment with the modern economic and social order.
Another top contender is Francois Fillon, who favors cuts in public spending and pushing for deep reforms in the EU.
Analysts and voters interviewed see this as the most unpredictable election since World War II. In the last few weeks before the vote, far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon surged in the polls and so did discussion of the previously obscure candidate in social media.
Among the ways his campaign lured young voters was through the release of a video game in which a player pretending to be Melenchon walks the streets and takes money from men in suits. The player is shown in a battle against the rich and powerful.
Anger at the establishment is the sentiment driving voters in an election in which security, France’s lagging economy, its 10-percent unemployment rate, and Islamist extremism are issues on the minds of those on the left and on the right.
That, say analysts, is what is driving large numbers of people, including some of the middle- and upper-class residents of Paris, to vote for candidates of the extreme, like Le Pen and Melenchon.
“Some of them for the thrill of it. It’s the principle, you know. Like playing Russian roulette, but politically. Some others it would be because they despise the elite of this country,” said Thomas Guénolé, a political analyst in Paris, told VOA.
The top two winners of Sunday’s poll will face off in a runoff election May 7.
Polls close at 1800 UTC.