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French Voters Begin Casting Ballots in Presidential Election

PARIS (AP) – French voters began casting ballots for the presidential election Sunday in a tense first-round poll that’s seen as a test for the spread of populism around the world.

Over 60,000 polling stations opened at 0600 GMT for voters who will choose between 11 candidates in the most unpredictable election in decades.

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 face off.

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, who was embroiled in a scandal over alleged fake jobs appeared to be closing the gap, as was far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.

Security was tight after a deadly attack on the Champs-Elysees on Thursday in which a police officer and a gunman were slain.

The vote “is really important, mainly because we really need a change in this country with all the difficulties we are facing and terrorism,” said Paris resident Alain Richaud, who was waiting to cast his vote.

The 11 candidates are also voting throughout the day.

Hard-line right-winger Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, who rails against Europe, was the first of the presidential candidates to vote Sunday morning in his constituency in the leafy Paris suburbs.

Far-left candidate Nathalie Arthaud cast her ballot soon after in the Paris suburb of Pantin.

France’s 10 percent unemployment, its lackluster economy and security issues topped concerns for the 47 million eligible voters.

If Le Pen or Melenchon win a spot in the runoff, it will be seen as a victory for the rising wave of populism reflected by the votes for Donald Trump and Brexit – the British departure from the European Union.

“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 labor rules.

Political campaigning was banned from midnight Friday hours ahead of polls opening in France’s far-flung overseas territories such as Guadeloupe, French Polynesia and French Guiana, which all voted a day early Saturday.

Unpopular incumbent President Francois Hollande made the unusual move last year of pledging to not stand for re-election.

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