After months of anticipatory build up, voting is underway in France on Sunday in the first round of a bitterly fought presidential election that is seen as crucial to the future of the Eurozone, and a closely-watched test of voters' anger with the political establishment.
Local polling stations opened at 0600 GMT and will close at 1800 GMT, with about 47 million voters expected to cast their ballots in around 67,000 polling stations amid a high terror alert.
Voters, on edge after Thursday's latest ISIS terrorist attack, will be monitored by more than 50,000 police officers backed by elite units of the French security services patrolled the streets less than three days after a suspected Islamist gunman shot dead a policeman and wounded two others on the central Champs Elysees avenue.
A voté. pic.twitter.com/E2DVMIHak8— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) April 23, 2017
By noon (6.00 a.m. ET), turnout amid perfect weather conditions across much of France was 28.54%, according to official figures, roughly the same as in the 2012 first round, in which almost 80% eventually took part.
Some polls had been predicting a much lower turnout, closer to the 70% that took the then National Front 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.
While we have previewed today's event extensively (most recently here), Reuters summarized it best: today "voters will decide whether to back a pro-EU centrist newcomer [and a former Rothschild banker], 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 of today's election will show whether the populist tide that led to Brexit and Donald Trump's victory is still rising, or starting to ebb.
The biggest wildcard ahead of today's outcome is the high level of indecision among the population, with nearly a third of potential voters undecided until the last minute. Hanan Fanidi, a 33-year-old financial project manager, was still unsure as she arrived at a polling station in Paris' 18th arrondissement.
"I don't believe in anyone, actually. I haven't arrived at a candidate in particular who could advance things. I'm very, very pessimistic," she said.
Looking at the outcome of today's vote, while the possibility of a Le Pen-Melenchon run-off is not the most likely scenario, it is the one which alarms bankers and investors.
Putting the performance of Marin Le Pen - as well as that of her father Jean-Marie - in election context:
- Jean-Marie Le Pen, 2002: 16.8%
- Jean-Marie Le Pen, 2007: 10.4%
- Marine Le Pen, 2012: 17.9%
Le Pen has told supporters "the EU will die", while Macron, 39, a former Rothschild banker wants to further beef up the euro zone. Le Pen further 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 also worries France's EU partners.
Germany's position on today's election is hardly a surprise: "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. 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.
Meanwhile, polls opened on Saturday in France’s overseas territories, allowing citizens to cast their ballots a day ahead of voters on the French mainland. According to unconfirmed twitter reports, based on preliminary offshore results, support for Melenchon is far greater than for any of his competitors.
Occasional live feed from Paris courtesy of Reuters: