High turnout in French presidential election

Nicolas Sarkozy, Francois Hollande and Marine Le Pen have all voted

There is a solid turnout so far in the first round of France's presidential election, official figures indicate.

Officials said 70% of people had voted by late afternoon - only slightly down from the exceptional results recorded in the last poll in 2007.

Centre-right incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy is seeking re-election, saying only he can preserve a "strong France" amid widespread anxiety over the economy.

Mr Sarkozy is facing a strong challenge from Socialist Francois Hollande.

There are 10 candidates in all, and if none wins more than 50% of the votes there will be a run-off round on 6 May.

Many polling stations closed at 18:00 (16:00 GMT), but voting continues in big cities until 20:00 (18:00GMT).

Analysis

There's an enervating, unseasonal wind blowing through Paris, which corresponds perfectly to the irascible mood of the electorate.

Certainly the idea that this election marks a moment of spring-like hope couldn't be further from people's minds.

What's noticeable is the lack of enthusiasm for either of the main candidates.

Supporters of President Sarkozy say he's the only man with the mettle for the job. But in the same breath they wish his personality was a little less maddening.

Supporters of Fran├žois Hollande say France needs a 'normal' president and that it's the Socialists' 'turn' to take power. But those are hardly urgent reasons to pick him.

Some say today's first round doesn't matter because the real election is in two weeks when Sarkozy and Hollande go head-to-head.

But today's results do count. Sarkozy needs to come first to restore momentum to his campaign. If Hollande is ahead, he'll be regarded as almost unbeatable.

Officials put turnout at 70% by 17:00 (15:00 GMT). At the same time in 2007 - in an election that was regarded as transformational - the figure was 73%.

Analysts say a strong turnout could favour opposition candidates.

The first official results will be released after the last stations close at 20:00.

President Sarkozy, who has been in office since 2007, has promised to reduce France's large budget deficit and to tax people who leave the country for tax reasons.

He has also called for a "Buy European Act" for public contracts, and threatened to pull out of the Schengen passport-free zone unless other members do more to curb immigration from non-European countries.

Mr Hollande, for his part, has promised to raise taxes on big corporations and people earning more than 1m euros a year.

He wants to raise the minimum wage, hire 60,000 more teachers and lower the retirement age from 62 to 60 for some workers.

If elected, Mr Hollande would be France's first left-wing president since Francois Mitterrand, who completed two seven-year terms between 1981 and 1995.

If Mr Sarkozy loses he will become the first president not to win a second term since Valery Giscard d'Estaing in 1981.

French presidents are now elected for five years.

Frustration

Wages, pensions, taxation, and unemployment have been topping the list of voters' concerns.

But the candidates have been accused of failing to address the country's problems during a lacklustre campaign.

Francois Hollande (left) and Nicolas Sarkozy

Francois Hollande (left) is mounting a strong challenge against President Sarkozy

Frustration with Mr Sarkozy's flashy style and with Mr Hollande's bland image has also allowed radical candidates to flourish.

Marine Le Pen, a media savvy far-right leader, has invigorated her anti-immigration National Front.

Meanwhile Jean-Luc Melenchon, who is supported by the Communist Party, has galvanised far-left voters.

Centrist leader Francois Bayrou is standing as a presidential candidate for the third time. In 2007, he came third, with nearly 19% of the vote.

Voting was held on Saturday in France's overseas territories - including Martinique and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean, Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean and French Polynesia.

Those territories vote early because results will be known on Sunday evening in mainland France - when it is still mid-afternoon in Caribbean islands and other overseas territories.

The presidential vote will be followed by a parliamentary election in June.

There will be a French election live page on this site from 1745 GMT (1845 BST). BBC World News and News Channel will start their special programming from 1730 GMT; BBC World Service radio will have a results programme from 1900 GMT.

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