Voters across France have begun casting ballots in a presidential run-off election that polls suggest will see Socialist challenger Francois Hollande defeat incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy after just one term.
Polling stations opened in mainland France at 6am irish time, a day after voting got underway in France’s overseas territories. Preliminary results are expected around 6pm Irish time.
Mr Hollande beat Mr Sarkozy by about half a million votes in the first round of voting on April 22, which saw 10 candidates competing for the job of running the nuclear-armed country with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council for the next five years.
The first round turnout of around 80% was higher than expected and is being closely watched again, with polls suggesting Mr Sarkozy’s best chance of an upset comes from even greater voter turnout today.
The election outcome will impact efforts to fight France's debt crisis, how long the nation's troops stay in Afghanistan and how France exercises its military and diplomatic muscle around the world.
Under Mr Sarkozy, France pledged to rein in its spending while the rest of 17 countries that use the euro embark on a strict period of belt-tightening. In France, that has included programmes designed to reduce government employment.
Mr Sarkozy, disliked by many voters for his handling of the economy and brash personality, promised he could produce a surprise victory today. Speaking on Europe-1 radio on Friday, he said much will depend on whether French voters bother to cast ballots in an election that polls have always predicted Mr Hollande would win.
Mr Hollande was benefiting from anti-Sarkozy fervour, with some voters saying their choice was more a vote against him than one for Mr Hollande.
“We’ve had enough of Sarkozy, the way he takes decisions without consulting anyone,” said Stephane Thomas, 24, after voting in Paris’ 10th arrondissement.
In a sign of the attention the campaign has attracted, Google’s home page in France was redesigned with one of its ever-changing “doodles” devoted to the election.
In Hollande’s town of Tulle, residents who got up early to vote offered mixed messages about him.
He has been a local official and politician for years in the town and its surrounding Correze region.
“I don’t know if he’s capable of being president. I just don’t know because here we just bump into him on the street. With us, he’s like that,” said Lydia Sobieniak, 65, a former factory worker, outside the polling station where Mr Hollande was voting shortly after it opened.
“It’s going to be hard. Whoever it is (who wins) ... there will be no miracles,” said Ms Sobieniak, who added that Mr Hollande helped her get a contract job in education in 2004 after she left her private-sector job.
Mr Hollande beat Mr Sarkozy by about half a million votes in the first round of voting on April 22, which saw 10 candidates competing for the job of running the country for the next five years.
Asked on Friday what he would do if he loses, Mr Sarkozy said simply: “There will be a handover of power.
“The nation follows its course. The nation is stronger than the destiny of the men who serve it,” he said. “The fact that the campaign is ending is more of a relief than a worry.”
Mr Hollande urged his followers against complacency. “Victory is within our grasp!” he said in a rousing rally in the southern city of Toulouse on Thursday night.
Polls released on Friday and Thursday show the gap between the candidates shrinking but results still solidly in Mr Hollande’s favour.
A poll by the BVA agency shows 52.5% support for Mr Hollande and 47.5% for Mr Sarkozy. A poll by the agency CSA shows 53% for Mr Hollande and 47% for Mr Sarkozy.
For both polling agencies, that was the smallest spread registered in the campaign, which a few months ago saw polls predicting Mr Hollande winning by a crushing 60% to Mr Sarkozy’s 40%.
The polls were carried out after the candidates’ only debate Wednesday night, which Mr Sarkozy had hoped would be the knockout blow he needed.