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French Pres. Vote Seen as Litmus Test  04/23 10:06

   Amid heightened security, French voters began casting ballots for their next 
president Sunday in a first-round poll that's being seen as a litmus test for 
the future of Europe and the spread of populism around the world.

   PARIS (AP) -- Amid heightened security, French voters began casting ballots 
for their next president Sunday in a first-round poll that's being seen as a 
litmus test for the future of Europe and the spread of populism around the 

   More than 50,000 police and gendarmes were deployed to protect 66,000 
polling stations for Sunday's election, which comes just three days after a 
deadly attack on Paris's famed Champs-Elysees Avenue in which a police officer 
and a gunman were slain. Another 7,000 soldiers are on patrol.

   The presidential poll is the first ever to be held while France is under a 
state of emergency, put in place since the November 2015 attacks in Paris left 
130 people dead.

   Voters are choosing between 11 presidential candidates in the most 
unpredictable contest in generations. The current president, Socialist Francois 
Hollande, is not among them, having decided that his historic unpopularity 
would hurt his party's cause.

   "We really need a change in this country, with all the difficulties we are 
facing and terrorism," Paris resident Alain Richaud said as he waited to cast 
his vote.

   "There have been surprises (this year), there have always been scandals," 
said Le Touquet resident Pierre-Antoine Guilluy.

   Opinion polls point to a tight race among the four leading contenders vying 
to advance to the May 7 presidential runoff, when the top two candidates will 
go head to head.

   Polls suggest far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, an 
independent centrist and former economy minister, were in the lead. But 
conservative Francois Fillon, a former prime minister embroiled in a scandal 
over alleged fake jobs given to his wife and children, appeared to be closing 
the gap, as was far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.

   France's 10 percent unemployment, its lackluster economy and security issues 
topped concerns for the country's 47 million eligible voters.

   Voter Marie-Christine Colrat lamented: "Listen, too many candidates. And 
candidates that caused us a lot of problems, I think that's not a good thing 
for France."

   The election is widely being seen as a vote on the future of the European 
Union --- with most of the French candidates railing against its institutions.

   Both Le Pen and Melenchon --- from opposite extremes of the political 
spectrum --- have supported pulling France out of the 28-nation bloc and its 
shared euro currency in a so-called "Frexit."

   A French exit, however, could spark a death spiral for the EU, for France 
and Germany are the bloc's strongest economies and biggest proponents of a 
united Europe.

   If either Le Pen or Melenchon wins a spot in the runoff, it will be seen as 
a victory for the rising wave of populism reflected by the votes for Brexit in 
Britain and Donald Trump in the United States.

   "It's definitely risky, but I have faith in the result even if an extreme 
candidate qualifies for the second round," said Beatrice Schopflin, who was 
queuing to vote in Paris.

   Macron and Fillon are committed to European unity and would reform the 
country's restrictive labor rules.

   The sun glistened across most of France on Sunday as voters --- and 
candidates --- cast their ballots. France's Interior Ministry said voter 
turnout at midday was 28.54 percent --- slightly stronger than it was in 2012, 
when turnout was high.

   In the northern town of Henin-Beaumont, several activists from the feminist 
group Femen were arrested after staging a topless protest against the far-right 
Le Pen. Police intervened and stopped the commotion minutes before the 
candidate arrived to cast her ballot. No one was hurt.

   Macron was the image of serenity as he posed for selfies with voters after 
casting his ballot in the northern coastal town of Le Touquet alongside his 
wife, Brigitte Macron.

   Melenchon voted in Paris, as did Fillon.

   But Fillon's wife, the scandal-hit Penelope Fillon, was conspicuously absent 
from her husband's side and voted 250 kilometers (155 miles) away near their 
14th century manor house in Sarthe. She is facing preliminary charges for her 
role in the fake jobs scandal that has rocked her husband's presidential 

   Hollande, the current president, voted in his political fiefdom of Tulle in 
Correze, southwestern France.

   Political campaigning was banned from midnight Friday hours ahead of polls 
opening in France's far-flung overseas territories such as Guadeloupe, French 
Polynesia and French Guiana, which all voted Saturday.

   In Montreal on Saturday, thousands of French nationals waited in lines that 
stretched at one point up to eight blocks long to cast their votes, with many 
saying they were motivated to help keep the far-right out of power.

   The interminable queue that lasted several hours was caused by lack of 
polling stations --- only one was set up for the estimated 57,000 registered 
French voters in Canada's most populous French-speaking city.

   One retired American in Paris urged her neighbors to make their voices count.

   "I think that it's important that every French voter gets out and votes 
today ... did you see what happened in the United States? The same could happen 
here," said Renette Decicco, a 78-year-old out shopping for food.


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