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Last Updated: Sunday, 22 April 2007, 16:18 GMT 17:18 UK
Turnout soars in key French vote
Woman casting vote in Paris
It is the highest turnout in a first round since at least 1981
French voters have been streaming to the polls to cast their ballot in a presidential election seen as the nation's most unpredictable in decades.

With three hours to go, nearly 74% had already voted, exceeding the total turnout for the last elections in 2002.

Twelve hopefuls are seeking a spot in the second-round run-off on 6 May.

The leading candidates are centre-right Nicolas Sarkozy, socialist Segolene Royal, centrist Francois Bayrou and far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen.

At 1500 GMT, turnout stood at 73.87%, according to the interior ministry, the highest rate in a first round since at least 1981.

I cannot find any candidate that truly represents my views
Muriel Calvez, 19

Correspondents say many French voters approached the election in a mood of mingled fear and hope, believing France needs change after 12 years under President Jacques Chirac but unsure which direction to opt for.

Of the main candidates, Mr Sarkozy has promised a "rupture" with the past and real economic reform.

As he cast his ballot with his wife in the Paris district of Neuilly-sur-Seine he said he could not be certain he would make it through to the next round and urged people to use their votes.

"First of all, I don't know if I'll make the second round. So I'll wait for the French people to decide and we'll have to abide by the choice of the French people and that's what matters," he said.

French voters' views

Ms Royal, hoping to become France's first female president, has pledged a fairer society, while Mr Bayrou has said he would bring together left and right in a government of national unity.

The 78-year-old Mr Le Pen has seen many of his ideas on patriotism and immigration filter into the mainstream campaigns.

He has confidently predicted he will enter the second round run-off again, as he did in the last election in 2002.

But the high turnout may not favour Mr Le Pen, says the BBC's Alasdair Sandford in Paris.

Since 2002, many new voters who have registered are thought to have done so to avoid a repeat of the National Front leader's success last time.

Shift in priorities?

There are more than one million newly registered voters, the biggest increase in 25 years.

RESULTS COUNTDOWN
1600 GMT - 22 April: Polls begin to close
1800 GMT - 22 April: Early exit polls
1800 GMT - 25 April: Official results
27 April: Campaigning restarts
6 May: Second round poll
10 May: Final official results

Some 1.5 million voters were to use electronic voting machines for the first time, criticised by the socialists and some other opposition parties as dangerously unreliable.

French citizens living abroad voted on Saturday - starting with the tiny island territory of Saint Pierre and Miquelon off Canada's Atlantic coast and followed by French citizens in other overseas territories and expatriates in the Americas.

This was a result of a rule change to prevent voters in the Americas hearing early results from France before they had a chance to cast their ballots.

Whoever wins, says the BBC's diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus, it will mark a change of political generation and perhaps a shift in French international priorities, making this election matter even to those outside France.


VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Presidential candidates cast their votes



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