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France votes in tight race after bruising campaign

French voters turned out in numbers Sunday to give their verdict in a hard-fought presidential battle between right-wing incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and his Socialist challenger Francois Hollande.

Opinion polls and electioneering were banned in the final 32 hours before polling stations opened, but Hollande began the day as firm favourite despite signs that Sarkozy had narrowed the gap slightly in the closing straight.

Dark grey skies and scattered rain showers greeted early voters in Paris, but turnout was high by recent standards in a highly political country today split roughly 50-50 between left-leaning and right-leaning camps.

More than 46 million voters were eligible to take part, and around 80 percent of them were expected to do so. Polling was to close at 8:00 pm (1800 GMT) and an estimated result was to be given immediately afterwards.

Four hours after polling began just over 30 percent of the electorate had turned out, more than during the first round vote on April 22, but down on the 34 percent who had taken part at the same stage in the 2007 run-off.

Hollande campaigned as a consensus-building moderate focused on restoring economic growth and is seen as on course to become France's first Socialist president since Francois Mitterrand left office in 1995.

Sarkozy has trailed consistently in opinion polls for the last six months, but fought a bruising campaign focused on mobilising voters fearful that immigration and globalisation threaten the French way of life.

Hollande voted early in his adopted hometown Tulle, in the rural backwoods of the Correze region, accompanied by his 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.

Final opinion polls conducted on Friday before campaigning was officially suspended for the weekend suggested the still energetic Sarkozy may have closed the gap on the frontrunner to as little as four percent.

But a complete turnaround would still constitute a surprise, and Hollande was expected to assume the leadership of France, the eurozone's second-largest economy and a nuclear-armed permanent member of the UN Security Council.

Total voter turnout in the first round last month was high, at just under 80 percent, and the duelling run-off candidates, both aged 57, have warned their supporters not to stay at home as every vote counts.

Even before polls opened on the mainland, more than a million had voted in overseas territories and consulates in foreign cities with a large French expatriate population, with turnout slightly higher than in the first round.

If he loses, Sarkozy will become the first French president since Valery Giscard d'Estaing in 1981 not to be re-elected. He is already the first ever incumbent not to come out ahead in the first round of voting.

France has a strict ban on publishing result estimates until all polls close, but foreign media websites are expected to publish estimates before then, and these will spread quickly via Twitter and Facebook.

Anyone breaking the law on sharing early estimates faces a fine of 75,000 euros (100,000 dollars), but French citizens got around the restriction in the first round by using code words and the Twitter hashtag #RadioLondres.

Hollande won the first round with 28.63 percent of the votes to Sarkozy's 27.18 percent, and both candidates have been fighting for the votes of those whose candidates failed to make the run-off.

Far-right anti-immigrant candidate Marine Le Pen, who won almost 18 percent in the first round, said she had cast a blank ballot, and observers expected many of her supporters to do the same.

"I clearly said I would cast a blank vote, I am not in the habit of changing my mind," she said after voting in the northern town of Henin-Beaumont, where she is a regional councillor.

"The two remaining candidates are political Siamese twins, so I'm not expecting very much from the result," Le Pen told journalists.

The polling institute Ifop, however, forecasts that 55 percent of her voters would back Sarkozy and 19 percent Hollande.

Hollande needs a strong mandate to implement his programme to counter EU-driven austerity, while Sarkozy has played on fears that the election of a Socialist would send shudders through the EU and the financial markets.

Whoever wins will next have to build a parliamentary majority after June's legislative elections, but the formal handover of presidential power is expected on or around May 15 -- in any case before May 17.

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