The first votes were to be cast yesterday for rival candidates Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal, as citizens in France's overseas territories start the ball rolling in the country's hardest-fought presidential election in years.
Voters in French Guiana, the Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe and the tiny archipelago of Saint Pierre and Miquelon off Canada's coast are going to the polls a day early in order to avoid problems caused by the time difference.
In mainland France official campaigning ended at midnight on Friday, with yesterday a day for reflection with family and friends ahead of today's vote.
The last opinion polls before a midnight ban confirmed a lead for Nicolas Sarkozy, the 52 year-old right-winger who has promised a radical agenda of tax cuts and work incentives, over his Socialist party (PS) rival Segolene Royal, 53.
The two opponents came first and second in the April 22 multi-candidate round of the election with 31.2 percent of the vote for Sarkozy and 25.9 percent for Royal.
The second round campaign has focussed on winning the 6.8 million voters -- 18.6 percent of the vote -- who chose the defeated centrist Francois Bayrou in round one.
Holding out the possibility of a future alliance with the left, Bayrou met Royal for policy discussions a week ago and later said that he would personally not vote for Sarkozy. But it was far from clear if his supporters would follow his advice.
A key moment of the campaign was Wednesday's televised debate between Sarkozy and Royal, which was watched by more than 20 million viewers.
Royal showed an unexpectedly aggressive streak in the debate -- at one point accusing Sarkozy of "political immorality" for his policies on the handicapped. Her attacks won high praise from supporters, but polls subsequently showed most voters found Sarkozy the more convincing.
With the campaign drawing to a close, Royal launched her strongest personal assault on Sarkozy on Friday, saying his election would provoke violence in the high-immigration suburbs that were the center of the 2005 riots.
Referring to his "dangerous candidacy," Royal said she had a "responsibility to issue an alert over the risks ... regarding the violence and brutalities that will be triggered across the country. Everyone knows it but no one says it. It is a kind of taboo."
Royal was immediately rebuked by Sarkozy's campaign headquarters, which described her remarks as "unacceptable and irresponsible."
"In a democratic debate, one cannot simply hold out threats and intimidation with the aim of persuading voters to choose another candidate," said spokeswoman Rachida Dati.
Sarkozy said Royal's attacks were "outrageous" and prompted by her worsening position in the polls.
"She is getting tense, stiffer, because she feels the ground shifting," he said.
France is choosing a successor to 74 year-old Jacques Chirac -- president since 1995.
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