Final votes are being cast as French voters have been going to the polls under heavy security in the first round of a crucial presidential election that could have far-reaching implications for the geopolitical status quo, including the future of the European Union and the West's relations with Russia.
Over 60,000 polling stations opened at 8 a.m. local time on April 23. A total of 69.4 per cent of registered voters in mainland France had cast their ballots in the presidential election by 5 p.m., the Interior Ministry said. It is only slightly down from the 70.6 per cent turnout at the same time during the last presidential election in 2012.
The election -- one of the most unpredictable French presidential polls in decades -- comes just days after the killing of a Paris police officer that was claimed by the extremist Islamic State (IS) group, thrusting the issues of terrorism and security to the fore in the final stretch of the 11-candidate race.
France is deploying some 50,000 police and 7,000 soldiers on election day to protect voters across the country, where a state of emergency remains in place in the wake of a series of attacks that have killed more than 230 people since 2015.
Opinion polls show centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron and far-right firebrand Marine Le Pen as the first-round front-runners, though conservative candidate Francois Fillon and Jean-Luc Melenchon of the far-left are also seen as having a chance of reaching the two-candidate May 7 runoff.
RFE/RL correspondent Gregory Zhygalov in Paris said the vote has generated a lot of interest among French citizens.
"When we were speaking to people here in France, in Paris, a lot of people [were] discussing this election just in the street, in a pub, in a restaurant, in ordinary conversations."
In what has been a highly charged election, around six topless demonstrators from the Femen group of feminist activists were detained in the morning on April 23 outside a polling station in Paris where Le Pen was heading to vote.
They jumped out of an SUV limo wearing masks of Marine Le Pen and U.S. President Donald Trump but were quickly forced into police vans by security forces. Le Pen voted at the station shortly after.
Macron voted in the coastal town of Le Touquet in northern France alongside his wife Brigitte.
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Undecided voters are estimated to constitute nearly a quarter of the electorate, and political observers say the April 20 shooting death of the police officer on the Champs-Elysees could give an advantage to candidates seen as tough on security and terrorism.
Following the attack, Le Pen moved to portray herself as the lone candidate capable of protecting the country against Islamist extremists. The 48-year-old National Front leader drew criticism from critics who accused her of exploiting the attack for political gain.
A victory for Le Pen and her fierce anti-immigration and anti-EU stances would mark the continuation of a surge in isolationist sentiment across the Western world that helped propel U.S. President Donald Trump into office and the Brexit referendum vote approving Britain’s departure from the EU.
France is a key member of NATO and has been a key pillar of EU unity in the bloc's response -- including sanctions -- to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and its backing of armed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Russia Denies Interference Claims
Like Trump, Le Pen has spoken admiringly of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the past and has backed lifting sanctions against Moscow over its interference in Ukraine. Following a visit with the Russian leader in Moscow last month, she criticized what she called the EU’s "hawkish vision."
Most opinion polls put Le Pen in second place behind Macron in the first round, though she is seen as unlikely to secure a victory over the pro-EU former economy minister in a runoff.
Macron has taken the hardest line on Russia among the four front-runners, backing EU sanctions against Russia and accusing the Kremlin of being involved in cyberattacks targeting his campaign. Russia has repeatedly denied reports that it is trying to influence the French election.
Fillon, a conservative former prime minister who has called for improving ties with Russia, saw his campaign jolted by allegations of corruption and nepotism. But polls indicate that both he and Melenchon, who advocates tearing up trade deals and leaving NATO, were gaining ground in the race.
The campaign officially came to an end on April 22, the same day that first-round voting began in French overseas territories and among French expatriates in the United States and Canada. The results of the mainland voting are expected on April 23 at around 8 p.m. local time.