Nearly 47 million voters are voting under tight security to 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 a first woman president who would shut borders to refugees 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 an anticipated run-off on May 7.
For them to win the top two qualifying positions on Sunday would represent a seismic shift 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 progressive versus the conservatives; Le Pen as the patriot versus the globalists.”
But conservative Francois Fillon is making a bit 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 very far behind in opinion polls.
Months of campaigning has been dominated by scandals, which have left many voters agonizing over their choice. Some 20-30 percent might not vote and about 30 percent of those who plan to show up at the polling stations are unsure whom to vote for.
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.
Meanwhile, 50,000 police and 7,000 soldiers have been deployed around France to protect voters in the wake of a policeman’s killing on Thursday.
Analysts believe the attack so late in the campaign could shift the focus from the economy to security and hand an advantage to candidates seen as taking a hard line on the issue.
“If it were to benefit someone, that would clearly be Marine Le Pen, who has dominated this issue throughout the campaign, or Francois Fillon,” said Adelaide Zulfikarpasic of the BVA polling institute.
In the aftermath of the attack, Le Pen called for France to “immediately” take back control of its borders from the EU and deport all foreigners on a terror watchlist. US President Trump also tweeted that the shooting “will have a big effect” on the French election.