, PARIS, May 6 – France goes to the polls Sunday with frontrunner Francois Hollande hoping voters will reject Nicolas Sarkozy’s record in office and make him the country’s first Socialist president since 1995.
France’s 46 million voters were to head to polling stations from 0600 GMT after a bruising campaign that pit energetic right-winger Sarkozy against Hollande, who presented himself as a consensus builder.
The first polls opened in overseas territories on Saturday and the last polls were to close in France, a nuclear-armed permanent member of the UN Security Council and the eurozone’s second largest economy, at 1800 GMT.
Political speeches and new opinion polls have been banned since a particularly ferocious campaign ended on Friday night, but the last poll published ahead of the deadline forecast a 52-48 percent win for Hollande.
The Ifop-Fiducial poll said Sarkozy has clawed back six percentage points of voter intentions since the end of last week as he went all-out to enchant those who voted for far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in the first round.
With the gap the narrowest since campaigning began, Sarkozy has vowed a surprise, while Hollande has cautioned against assuming he will be France’s first Socialist president since Francois Mitterrand left office in 1995.
Voter turnout in the first round was high at around 80 percent and the run-off candidates, both aged 57, have been calling on citizens not to stay at home as every vote counts.
Hollande will vote in his provincial political heartland Tulle in central France, while Sarkozy was to vote in Paris’ chic 16th arrondissement.
If he loses, Sarkozy will become the first French president since Valery Giscard d’Estaing in 1981 not to be re-elected.
France has a strict ban on publishing result estimates until all polls close, but foreign media websites are expected to publish estimates before then which will then spread via Twitter and Facebook.
Anyone breaking the law on publishing results estimates faces a fine of 75,000 euros (100,000 dollars), but French citizens got around the restriction in the first round by using codewords and the Twitter hashtag #RadioLondres.
Hollande won the April 22 vote 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.
Le Pen, who won almost 18 percent in the first round, has said she will cast a blank ballot, and observers expect many of her supporters to do the same.
Ifop has forecast however that 55 percent of her voters would back Sarkozy and 19 percent Hollande.
Hollande needs a strong mandate to implement his left-wing programme and fight EU-driven austerity, while Sarkozy has played on fears that the election of a Socialist would send shudders through the EU and the markets.
The last week of the campaign was marked by a dramatic television debate that saw the contenders trade insults without either landing a knock-out blow.
Many French were surprised at the Socialist’s combativeness, while Sarkozy sought to portray himself as a president forced to respond to a global economic crisis.
Fears over low economic growth, rising joblessness and European Union-imposed austerity measures have worked in favour of the Socialists.
Many voters also disapprove of Sarkozy’s flashy style during his five-year term, welcoming Hollande’s vows to be a “normal president.”