The French turned out on Sunday for a vote tipped to make Nicolas Sarkozy the latest European leader ousted by economic crisis and Francois Hollande the country's first Socialist president in nearly two decades.
The last opinion polls published put Hollande ahead -- but with Sarkozy narrowing the gap slightly in the closing straight -- as voters punish the right-wing incumbent for failing to slash stubbornly high unemployment.
Victory for Hollande would mean a shift in direction for the European Union as the Socialist has promised to renegotiate the bloc's fiscal pact -- which he accuses of stifling economies -- to make it focus more on growth.
Dark grey skies and rain showers greeted voters across much of France, but turnout was high by recent standards in a highly political country today split roughly 50-50 between left-leaning and right-leaning camps.
Hollande voted early in his adopted hometown Tulle, in the rural backwoods of the central Correze region, accompanied by girlfriend Valerie Trierweiler and welcomed by a crowd of supporters and journalists from around the globe.
"It's going to be a long day," he said. "I don't know if it's going to be a good day -- that's for the French to decide -- but for a portion of them it will obviously be a good day, and not for the others."
Sarkozy and his former supermodel wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy voted at a high school in Paris' chic 16th district followed by a dense pack of photographers and acclaimed by a well-heeled crowd gathered behind street barriers.