PARIS — Voters were turning out Sunday in solid numbers for the first round of France's presidential election, with conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy's political career on the line amid frustration over his personal style and inability to turn around a stagnant French economy.
Sunday's balloting will trim down a list of 10 candidates from across the political spectrum to two finalists for a decisive May 6 runoff, which will set a course for the next five years in this pillar of the European Union.
The Interior Ministry said early turnout figures showed 28 percent of France's 44-million-plus voters cast ballots before noon — less than the 31 percent in 2007 at the same time, but more than in the four previous races.
Sarkozy and his main expected challenger, Socialist nominee Francois Hollande, have pushed for a strong turnout on the idea that it would help the political mainstream and dilute the impact of more ideological voters.
Polls for months have shown that Sarkozy and Hollande are likely to make the cut — and suggest Hollande would win the campaign finale.
"This is an election that will weigh on the future of Europe. That's why many people are watching us," said Hollande after voting in Tulle, a town in central France. "They're wondering not so much what the winner's name will be, but especially what policies will follow."
"That's why I'm not in a competition just of personalities. I am in a competition in which I must give new breath of life to my country and a new commitment to Europe," he added, urging a big turnout from voters.
Sarkozy waved to supporters and apologized to polling station attendants "for the big fuss" as he voted at a high school in posh western Paris along with his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy — and a throng of journalists in tow. Behind barriers, a small crowd chanted "Bravo! Bravo!" as they left. He didn't speak to the media on the way out.
Sarkozy, defending his record on the campaign trail, has repeatedly pointed to a tough economic climate and debt troubles across Europe — not just in France.
But with turnout a looming question, surprises could await among candidates including far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen, Communist-backed firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon or centrist Francois Bayrou.
While they are not expected to win, a strong performance by one or all of them could cast a shadow over the second round vote. Polls show the five other candidates are expected to receive low single-digit percentages.
Balloting got under way Saturday in France's embassies and overseas holdings. Polls have shown that concerns about jobs — with the unemployment rate hovering near a 10-year high — and the economy are top issues.
The campaign has often centered on hot-button issues such as immigration, Islam in France, and calls for taxes on the rich — which experts suggest will in fact have little effect on France's high state budget deficit.
TV images showed Hollande and several other candidates voting at polling stations around France. Some voters expressed disappointment about the crop of presidential aspirants, while others say France needs a new track.
"I think most people are not satisfied with the last five years, people want change, especially in terms of job creation," said voter Eli Lazovsky, a 38-year-old hotel manager, after casting a ballot in a well-to-do Paris neighborhood off the Champs-Elysees.
Hollande, in his Mr. Nice Guy kind of way, has tapped into a fear of the free market that has always held more sway in France than almost anywhere in the West, and has enjoyed a resurgence in the era of Occupy Wall Street and anti-banker backlash.
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