PARIS (REUTERS) - Voters cast their ballots across France on Sunday (April 10) in the first round of a presidential election in which far-right candidate Marine Le Pen is posing an unexpected threat to President Emmanuel Macron's re-election hopes.
With undecided voters a crucial issue in the tight race, turnout by midday (6pm Singapore time) was estimated at 25.5 per cent, down from 28.5 per cent at the same time in 2017.
Voting booths close at 8pm local time (2am Singapore time Monday), when the first, and usually reliable, exit polls will be published.
Polls published before a campaign blackout suggested the most likely outcome was an April 24 Macron-Le Pen runoff.
Until just weeks ago, opinion polls pointed to an easy win for the pro-European Union and centrist Mr Macron, who was boosted by his active diplomacy over Ukraine, a strong economic recovery and the weakness of a fragmented opposition.
"I think he’s the only one today who has the courage... to build the France of tomorrow," Ms Armelle Savidan, a 47-year-old human resources manager, said after casting her ballot for Mr Macron in Paris.
But Mr Macron's late entry into the campaign, with only one major rally that even his supporters found underwhelming and his focus on an unpopular plan to increase the retirement age, have dented the president’s ratings, along with a steep rise in inflation.
In contrast, the anti-immigration, eurosceptic far-right Le Pen has been boosted by a months-long focus on cost of living issues and a big drop in support for her rival on the far-right, Mr Eric Zemmour.
"We’ve long been known for our views on immigration, but what we’re putting forward now is the social problems in this country," said Mr Steeve Briois, a mayor for Ms Le Pen’s National Rally party in the northern French town of Henin-Beaumont.
Rising fuel and food prices, fanned by the war in Ukraine, are a pressing issue for many voters.
In the central village of La Villetelle, Ms Delphine Boyer, a 39-year-old childcare assistant who voted for centre-right candidate Valerie Pecresse, said purchasing power was a worry, along with a sense that "no one looks after us in the countryside".
Last polls still had Mr Macron leading the first round and winning a runoff against Ms Le Pen on April 24.
But they also showed Ms Le Pen narrowing the gap and some put her within the margin of error.
Mr Macron, 44 and in office since 2017, spent the last days of campaigning trying to make the point that Ms Le Pen’s programme has not changed despite efforts to soften her image and that of her National Rally party.
In Sevres, just outside Paris, 58-year old aeronautical engineer Jacques Poggio said that while he backed Mr Macron five years ago, he now voted for the hard-left Jean-Luc Melenchon, because he was disappointed with Mr Macron’s "very right-wing signals – in opposition to some of the discourse that brought him into power."
Mr Melenchon has been running third in opinion polls and his campaign has urged left-wing voters of all stripes to switch to him and send him into the runoff.
Mr Macron was elected in 2017 on a neither-left-nor-right centrist platform but his economic and security policies veered to the right.
Assuming that Macron and Le Pen go through to the runoff, the president faces a problem: many left-wing voters have told pollsters that, unlike in 2017, they would not cast a ballot for Mr Macron in the runoff purely to keep Ms Le Pen out of power.
Mr Macron will need to persuade them to change their minds and vote for him in the second round.
Sunday’s vote will show who the unusually high number of late undecided voters will pick, and whether Ms Le Pen, 53, can exceed opinion poll predictions and come out top in the first round.
Mr Macron and Ms Le Pen agree the outcome is wide open.
“Everything is possible,” Ms Le Pen told supporters on Thursday, while earlier in the week Mr Macron warned his followers not to discount a Ms Le Pen win.
“Look at what happened with Brexit, and so many other elections: what looked improbable actually happened,” he said.