France voted yesterday in its most unpredictable presidential election in decades, with a dozen contenders jostling to be the man or woman who will satisfy the country's burning desire for change.
Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Segolene Royal were favorites to make it through to the run-off ballot on May 6, but opinion polls showed millions were still undecided despite months of frenzied campaigning.
Both centrist candidate Francois Bayrou and far-right veteran Jean-Marie Le Pen were still hopeful of a second round spot.
"Anything can happen!" declared the front-page headline of Le Parisien, while the Journal du Dimanche said: "Incredible suspense for an historic vote."
Memories are vivid of the last presidential election in 2002, when the rabidly anti-immigrant Le Pen shocked France and the world by qualifying for round two.
Sarkozy has pushed a right-wing program based on the themes of work and national identity, but his tough talk sparked fears he would divide rather than unite the nation.
Royal has presented herself as a mother figure and has proposed a leftist economic program that would keep France's generous welfare system intact.
Bayrou wants to end the left-right political divide by forming a national unity government.
All three come from a new generation of politicians, and in a campaign that has been as much about personalities as policies, all claimed to represent a break from a discredited past.
Whoever wins the presidency will have to deal with a huge public debt, stubbornly high unemployment and seething discontent in the high-immigration suburbs, which in 2005 broke out into widespread rioting.
He or she will also need to soothe French angst about factories closing and shifting to China or India.
Around 44.5 million registered voters -- an increase of 3.4 million over 2002 -- were choosing a successor to President Jacques Chirac, who steps down next month.
In Argenteuil, one of the poor Paris suburbs where former interior minister Sarkozy is a hate figure for many after denouncing "rabble" troublemakers, 40-year-old Samir said he had just voted for Royal.
"Madame Royal will bring in more work, more liberty. Under Sarkozy, people were pushed and pushed; they had no freedom," said Samir, who did not want to give his surname, as he emerged from a polling station.
By midday, 31 percent of voters had turned out to vote, election officials said, which was 10 percentage points higher than at the same time in the 2002 vote.
Only the two front-runners qualify for the second round.
Opinion polls have consistently given a clear first round lead to Sarkozy, the 52-year-old leader of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), who yesterday morning cast his vote along with his wife Cecilia at a polling station in a Paris suburb.
Royal, 53, a former environment minister who wants to be France's first woman president, has been in second place, followed by Bayrou, 55, and Le Pen.
But the gap separating them has varied widely, fueling the speculation over who will join Sarkozy in the run-off.
Also running in the election are three Trotskyites, a Communist, a Green and anti-capitalist campaigner Jose Bove. The other two are a hunters' rights candidate and the Catholic nationalist Philippe de Villiers.
Few believe that French voters are about to stage a revolution at the ballot box, but the next president will be the person who best succeeds in addressing a yearning for change.
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