PARIS — Amid heightened security, French voters began casting ballots for their next president Sunday in a first-round poll that's being seen as a litmus test for the future of Europe and the spread of populism around the world.
More than 50,000 police and gendarmes were deployed to protect 66,000 polling stations for the election, which comes just three days after a deadly attack on Paris's famed Champs-Elysees Avenue in which a police officer and a gunman were slain.
The presidential poll has consequences for the future of the European Union, for France's millions of Muslims and for world financial markets. It's also the first ever to be held while France is under a state of emergency, put in place since the November 2015 attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead.
Pre-election polls suggest far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, an independent centrist and former economy minister, were in the lead. But conservative Francois Fillon, a former prime minister embroiled in a scandal over alleged fake jobs given to his wife and children, appeared to be closing the gap in recent days, as was far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.
Voters are choosing among 11 presidential candidates in the most unpredictable contest in generations. The current president, Socialist Francois Hollande, is not among them, having decided that his historic unpopularity would hurt his party's cause.
"We really need a change in this country, with all the difficulties we are facing and terrorism," Paris resident Alain Richaud said as he waited to cast his vote.
Voter Marie-Christine Colrat lamented: "Listen, (there are) too many candidates. And candidates that caused us a lot of problems, I think that's not a good thing for France."
Opinion polls point to a tight race among the four leading contenders vying to advance to the May 7 presidential runoff, when the top two candidates will go head to head to become France's next leader. Political campaigning was banned from midnight Friday until polls close at 8 p.m. Sunday.
The sun glistened across most of France as voters — and candidates — cast their ballots. France's Interior Ministry said voter turnout by late afternoon was 69.4 percent — slightly lower than in 2012, when turnout was high. There was a marked surge in turnout in the Paris region.
France's 10 percent unemployment, its lackluster economy and security issues topped concerns for the country's 47 million eligible voters.
The election is widely being seen as a vote on the future of the European Union — with most of the French candidates railing against its institutions.
Both Le Pen and Melenchon — from opposite extremes of the political spectrum — could eventually pull France out of the 28-nation bloc and its shared euro currency in a so-called "Frexit." Melenchon says that's a possibility if he can't renegotiate France's role in a bloc blamed for myriad economic and security woes.
After Britain's impending departure from the EU, a French exit could spark a death spiral for the bloc. France and Germany are the bloc's strongest economies and biggest proponents of a united Europe.
If either Le Pen or Melenchon wins a spot in the runoff, it will be seen as a victory for the rising wave of populism reflected by the votes for Brexit in Britain and Donald Trump in the United States. Both candidates have tapped into widespread disillusionment with traditional parties.
"It's definitely risky, but I have faith in the result even if an extreme candidate qualifies for the second round," said Beatrice Schopflin, who was queuing to vote in Paris.
Macron and Fillon are committed to European unity and would reform the country's restrictive labor rules.
In Le Pen's northern bastion of Henin-Beaumont, several activists from the feminist group Femen were arrested Sunday after staging a topless protest against her. Police intervened and stopped the commotion minutes before the candidate arrived to cast her ballot.
Macron was the image of serenity as he posed for selfies with voters after casting his ballot in the northern coastal town of Le Touquet alongside his wife, Brigitte Macron.
Melenchon voted in Paris, as did Fillon.
But Fillon's wife, the scandal-hit Penelope Fillon, was conspicuously absent from her husband's side and voted 250 kilometers (155 miles) away near their 14th century manor house in Sarthe. She is facing preliminary charges for her role in the fake jobs scandal that has rocked her husband's presidential campaign.
Hollande, the current president, voted in his political fiefdom of Tulle in Correze, southwestern France.
Dozens of people lined up to vote Sunday inside the French Embassy in Cairo, where many expats work for French companies and schools. While Islam has been a big part of Le Pen's campaign and the electoral debate, French voters in Muslim-majority Egypt said the topic did not affect their voting choices.
Polls opened Saturday in France's far-flung overseas territories such as Guadeloupe, French Polynesia and French Guiana.
In Montreal on Saturday, thousands of French citizens waited in lines that stretched up to eight blocks long to cast their votes, with many saying they were motivated to help keep the far-right out of power.
The interminable queue that lasted several hours was caused by lack of polling stations — only one was set up for the estimated 57,000 registered French voters in Canada's most populous French-speaking city.
One retired American in Paris urged her neighbors to make their voices count Sunday.
"I think that it's important that every French voter gets out and votes today ... did you see what happened in the United States? The same could happen here," said Renette Decicco, a 78-year-old out shopping for food.
Elaine Ganley and Alex Turnbull in Henin-Beaumont, Chris den Hond in Le Touquet, Sylvie Corbet and Nadine Achoui-Lesage in Paris and Brian Rohan in Cairo contributed to this report.