France presidential poll a bellwether for Europe

News 23 Apr 2017

left right Names of 2017 French presidential election candidates are seen printed during the first round of 2017 French presidential election in Paris, France, April 23, 2017. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau 1/22 left right Emmanuel Macron (L), head of the political movement En Marche !, or Onwards !, and candidate for the 2017 French presidential election, casts his ballot in the first round of 2017 French presidential election at a polling station in Le Touquet, northern France, April 23, 2017. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer 2/22 left right Marine Le Pen, French National Front (FN) political party leader and candidate for French 2017 presidential election, casts her ballot in the first round of 2017 French presidential election at a polling station in Henin-Beaumont, northern France, April 23, 2017. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol 3/22 left right French President Francois Hollande (L) arrives at a polling station to vote in the first round of 2017 French presidential election in Tulle, central France, April 23, 2017. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau 4/22 left right A policeman looks on a people participate in the first round of 2017 French presidential election in Vaulx-en-Velin, France, April 23, 2017. REUTERS/Emannuel Foudrot 5/22 left right Benoit Hamon, French Socialist party 2017 presidential candidate, leaves the polling booth as he votes in the first round of 2017 French presidential election at a polling station in Trappes, near Paris, France, April 23, 2017. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler 6/22 left right A woman leaves a polling booth as she votes in the first round of 2017 French presidential election at a polling station in Vaulx-en-Velin near Lyon, France, April 23, 2017. REUTERS/Emmanuel Foudrot 7/22 left right David Rachline (R), mayor of Frejus and campaign director of Marine Le Pen, French National Front (FN) political party leader and candidate for French 2017 presidential election, arrives at a polling station in the first round of 2017 French presidential election in Henin-Beaumont, northern France, April 23, 2017. REUTERS/Charles Platiau 8/22 left right A woman prepares to cast her ballot to vote in the first round of 2017 French presidential election at a polling station in Trappes, near Paris, France, April 23, 2017. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler 9/22 left right People line up to vote in the first round of 2017 French presidential election at a polling station in Vaulx-en-Velin near Lyon, France, April 23, 2017. REUTERS/Emmanuel Foudrot 10/22 left right A voter chooses ballots before voting in the first round of 2017 French presidential election at a polling station in Lyon, France, April 23, 2017. REUTERS/Robert Pratta 11/22 left right People choose their ballots before voting in the first round of 2017 French presidential election at a polling station in Lyon, France, April 23, 2017. REUTERS/Robert Pratta 12/22 left right Ballot envelopes and ballot papers are seen on a table at a polling station in the first round of 2017 French presidential election in Lyon, France, April 23, 2017. REUTERS/Robert Pratta 13/22 left right A policeman secures the entrance of a polling station as people arrive to vote in the first round of 2017 French presidential election in Henin-Beaumont, France, April 23, 2017. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol 14/22 left right A policeman stands near a polling station during the first round of 2017 French presidential election in Henin-Beaumont, France, April 23, 2017. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol 15/22 left right A policeman installs barriers near a polling station during the first round of 2017 French presidential election in Henin-Beaumont, France, April 23, 2017. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol 16/22 left right A voter casts his ballot at the polling station to vote in the first round of 2017 French presidential election in Paris, France, April 23, 2017. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann 17/22 left right People line up to vote in the first round of 2017 French presidential election at a polling station in Vaulx-en-Velin near Lyon, France, April 23, 2017. REUTERS/Emmanuel Foudrot 18/22 left right A voter prepares to vote in the first round of 2017 French presidential election at a polling station in Paris, France, April 23, 2017. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann 19/22 left right People choose their ballots before voting in the first round of 2017 French presidential election at a polling station in Lyon, France, April 23, 2017. REUTERS/Robert Pratta 20/22 left right People choose their ballots before voting in the first round of 2017 French presidential election at a polling station in Marseille, France, April 23, 2017. REUTERS/Philippe Laurenson 21/22 left right An official checks her watch for the opening of a polling station during the first round of 2017 French presidential election in Marseille, France, April 23, 2017. REUTERS/Philippe Laurenson 22/22 By Ingrid Melander | PARIS

PARIS France voted on Sunday in the first round of a bitterly fought presidential election that is crucial to the future of Europe and a closely-watched test of voters' anger with the political establishment.

Over 50,000 police backed by elite units of the French security services were on high alert, patrolling the streets less than three days after a gunman shot dead a policeman and wounded two others on the central Champs Elysees avenue.

Nearly 47 million voters will decide whether to back a pro-EU centrist newcomer, a scandal-ridden veteran conservative who wants to slash public spending, a far-left eurosceptic admirer of Fidel Castro or to appoint France's first woman president who would shut borders and ditch the euro.

The outcome will be anxiously monitored around the world as a sign of whether the populist tide that saw Britain vote to leave the EU and Donald Trump's election in the United States is still rising, or starting to ebb.

Emmanuel Macron, 39, a centrist ex-banker who set up his party just a year ago, is the opinion polls' favorite to win the first round and beat far-right National Front chief Marine Le Pen in the two-person run-off on May 7.

For them to win the top two qualifying positions on Sunday would represent a huge change in the political landscape, as the second round would feature neither of the mainstream parties that have governed France for decades.

"It wouldn't be the classic left versus right divide but two views of the world clashing," said Ifop pollsters' Jerome Fourquet. "Macron bills himself as the progressist versus conservatives, Le Pen as the patriot versus the globalists."

But conservative Francois Fillon is making something of a comeback after being plagued for months by a fake jobs scandal, and leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon's ratings have surged in recent weeks. Any two of the four is seen as having a chance to qualify for the run-off.

The seven other candidates, including the ruling Socialist party's Benoit Hamon, two Trotskyists, three fringe nationalists and a former shepherd-turned-centrist lawmaker are lagging far behind in opinion polls.

"I have no idea who I'm going to vote for. It's a disaster. I am going to go and vote but only because I have to," said 60-year-old Pierrette Prevot in Paris.

Security has played an important part in national debate since Thursday's killing of a policeman by a suspected Islamist in Paris, with some arguing it could increase Le Pen's chances.

But previous militant attacks, such as the November 2015 killing of 130 people in Paris ahead of regional polls, did not appear to boost the votes of those espousing tougher national security policies.

Adding uncertainty to France's most unpredictable election in decades, pollsters say they might not be able to give precise estimates of the outcome at 8 p.m. (1800 GMT) as usual, because small and medium-sized polling stations will be open one hour longer than in past elections.

"CHEERING MADLY"?

The possibility of a Le Pen-Melenchon run-off is not the most likely scenario but is one which alarms bankers and investors.

While Macron wants to further beef up the euro zone, Le Pen has told supporters "the EU will die". She wants to return to the Franc, re-denominate the country's debt stock, tax imports and reject international treaties.

Melenchon also wants to radically overhaul the European Union and hold a referendum on whether to leave the bloc.

Le Pen or Melenchon would struggle, in parliamentary elections in June, to win a majority to carry out such radical moves, but their growing popularity worries both investors and France's EU partners.

"It is no secret that we will not be cheering madly should Sunday's result produce a second round between Le Pen and Melenchon," German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said, adding that the election posed a risk to the global economy.

If either Macron or Fillon were victorious, each would face challenges.

For Macron, a big question would be whether he could win a majority in parliament in June. Fillon, though likely to struggle less to get a majority, would likely be dogged by an embezzlement scandal, in which he denies wrongdoing.

(Additional reporting by Bate Felix; Writing by Ingrid Melander; editing by Ralph Boulton; Editing by Andrew Roche and Andrew Callus)

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