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France’s place in Europe at issue in vote for president

News 23 Apr 2017

left right Marine Le Pen (L), 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. At R, Mayor of Henin-Beaumont Steeve Briois. REUTERS/Charles Platiau 1/24 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 2/24 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 3/24 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 4/24 left right People line up to vote at a polling station in the first round of 2017 French presidential election in Vaulx-en-Velin, France, April 23, 2017. REUTERS/Emannuel Foudrot 5/24 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 6/24 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 7/24 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 8/24 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 9/24 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 10/24 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 11/24 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 12/24 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 13/24 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 14/24 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 15/24 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 16/24 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 17/24 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 18/24 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 19/24 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 20/24 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 21/24 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 22/24 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 23/24 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 24/24 By Ingrid Melander | PARIS

PARIS France voted on Sunday in the first round of a bitterly fought presidential election that could define the future of the European Union, and is sure to be seen as a gauge of the anti-establishment anger that has brought upsets in Western politics.

Over 50,000 police and 7,000 soldiers backed by rapid response units patrolled streets three days after a suspected Islamist gunman shot dead a policeman and wounded two others in the heart of the capital, Paris.

Voters will decide whether to back a pro-EU centrist newcomer, a scandal-ridden veteran conservative who wants to slash public expenditure, a far-left eurosceptic admirer of Fidel Castro, or a far-right nationalist who, as France's first woman president, would shut borders and ditch the euro.

The outcome will show whether the populist tide that saw Britain vote to leave the EU and Donald Trump elected president of the United States is still rising, or starting to ebb.

But it also provides a choice between radically different recipes for reviving a listless economy that lags its neighbors, and where almost a quarter of under-25s have no job.

A high level of indecision added to the nervousness.

Hanan Fanidi, a 33-year-old financial project manager, was still unsure as she arrived at a polling station in Paris's 18th arrondissement.

"I don't believe in anyone, actually. I haven't arrived at any candidate in particular who could advance things," she said. "I'm very, very pessimistic."

Despite fears that broad disillusionment with politics could keep voters away, the early turnout, in fair weather nationwide, was marginally up on the last election, in 2012.

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 then beat far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen in the two-person runoff on May 7.

CHANGING THE LANDSCAPE

If they come first and second on Sunday, it would virtually reinvent a political landscape dominated for 60 years by mainstream groupings from the center-left and center-right.

"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 progressive versus conservatives, Le Pen as the patriot versus the globalists."

While Macron offers a vision of gradual economic deregulation that would cause few ripples on global financial markets, Le Pen proposes a more disruptive program of higher social spending, financed by money-printing, coupled with a withdrawal from the euro and possibly the EU.

Of the two other candidates close enough in opinion polls to be in with a good chance of making the runoff, Jean-Luc Melenchon offers a far-left tax-and-spend platform that has much in common with Le Pen's, although without her plans to restrict immigration.

And conservative Francois Fillon, rebounding after being plagued for months by a fake jobs scandal, promises economic shock therapy of deregulation and slashing taxes and state spending, cutting half a million state sector jobs.

The seven other candidates, including the ruling Socialist party's Benoit Hamon, lag far behind.

In a polling station in Lyon, long-time left-wing voter Julien Rossi, 42, said he had been won over by Macron. "We're from the same generation. He goes down well abroad. He's the most open of the candidates."

By noon (6.00 a.m. ET), turnout was 28.54 percent, according to official figures – around the same as in 2012, in which almost 80 percent eventually took part in the first round.

Some polls have been predicting a turnout closer to the 70 percent that took the National Front's then-leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, into the second round in 2002. Pollsters are unclear about what a low or high turnout could mean in 2017.

IT'S THE ECONOMY

Pollsters say jobs, the economy and the general trustworthiness of politicians are voters' main concerns.

But security has re-entered the debate since Thursday's killing of a policeman on the Avenue des Champs-Elysees, and the arrest in Marseille on Tuesday of two men suspected of planning an imminent Islamist attack.

Le Pen has emphasized the Islamist threat and promised tougher border controls, and some argue that the incident increases her chances. But previous attacks, such as the killing of 130 people in Paris by Islamist gunmen in November 2015 ahead of regional polls, have not appeared to affect voting.

One polling station in Besancon, in eastern France, was evacuated on Sunday after a stolen vehicle was abandoned nearby with the engine running.

The possibility of a Le Pen-Melenchon run-off is not the most likely scenario but is one that 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.

Both would struggle, in parliamentary elections in June, to win a majority to carry out such radical moves, but their growing popularity also worries 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.

(Additional reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta, Bate Felix and Michaela Cabrera in Paris and Ilze Filks in Henin-Beaumont; Writing by Ingrid Melander and Kevin Liffey; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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