France was poised to start choosing its new president on Saturday, after campaigning ended for the first round of the election and the last polls showed right-wing favourite Nicolas Sarkozy maintaining his lead over Socialist Segolene Royal.
The first votes were to be cast during the day, as citizens of French overseas territories and expatriates in the Americas go to the polls 24 hours ahead of mainland France.
The tiny French dependency of St Pierre and Miquelon -- a group of islands off Canada's Atlantic coast with just 5,000 registered voters -- kicks off the election at 1000 GMT.
Official campaigning in France ended at midnight Friday (2200 GMT), and a ban came into force preventing all media from publishing opinion polls and statements from the 12 candidates.
After a day meant for discussion among family and friends, voting opens across France at 8:00 am on Sunday morning and ends 12 hours later, with normally reliable projections due out immediately.
The two front-runners from the ballot qualify for a decisive second round on May 6 -- the system having been devised for the 49-year-old Fifth Republic so that presidents are elected with more than half the vote.
The four leading contenders -- Sarkozy, Royal, centrist Francois Bayrou and far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen -- held their last rallies on Thursday evening, appealing to the third of the 44.5 million voters that pollsters say are still undecided.
For the last month polls have consistently given a clear first round lead to Sarkozy, a 52-year-old former interior minister who heads the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP).
Royal, 53, has been in second place followed by Bayrou and Le Pen -- but the gap separating Royal and Bayrou has varied widely and speculation has centred on which of the two will qualify for round two.
Speaking late Friday in the northwestern city of Rouen, Bayrou -- who heads the small Union for French Democracy (UDF) -- repeated his claim to be the only candidate capable of beating Sarkozy in the run-off.
"This is very important, and very positive. It answers the question that all those undecided voters are asking: what is the most effective vote for ensuring things change," the 55-year-old centrist politician said.
Royal, a former environment minister who wants to be France's first woman president, would be under threat if large numbers of left-wing voters switched tactically to Bayrou in order to keep out Sarkozy, analysts said.
However she stands to gain from memories of the 2002 vote when the Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin was beaten in round one by far-rightist Le Pen.
Failure to qualify for a second time for round two would be disastrous for the Socialist party, and this may encourage left-wingers to stay with Royal.
A further unknown is the level of support for Le Pen, 78, who says that his poll ratings underestimate his true vote.
France is choosing a successor to Jacques Chirac -- who has been president since 1995 -- in an election seen as one of the most exciting and important in recent times.
All three main candidates come from a new generation of political leaders, and all claim to represent a radical break from the past. All also describe France as a country in crisis, thanks to massive debt, high unemployment, low income levels and simmering discord in the riot-hit suburbs.
In Sarkozy and Royal, voters face a clear choice between a right-wing programme based on free-market ideas and a left-winger promising to safeguard the country's "social model".
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.