Updated 1053 GMT (1853 HKT) April 23, 2017
Paris (CNN)French citizens are voting for their next President on Sunday following a volatile campaign period that was overshadowed by a terror attack on police in Paris last week.
With 11 names on the ballot, no one candidate is expected to win an outright majority. Only four leading contenders are seen as having a realistic prospect of making it through to the second-round vote in May.
The frontrunners are far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, scandal-hit conservative François Fillon, centrist newcomer Emmanuel Macron and far-left wildcard Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The top two in Sunday’s vote will face off on May 7 for the second and final round of voting.
Some 47 million people are registered to vote, and latest polls suggest the results are too close to call. That means France could end up with a choice between candidates from the far-left and far-right, or a far-right stalwart facing off against a political novice. With such a fractured field, no one is expected to win a majority in Sunday’s first round.
Benoit Hamon is the mainstream left-wing Socialist Party nominee but polls suggest he has struggled to gain traction.
Security, immigration major issues
Polls opened at 8 a.m. local time (2 a.m. ET) Sunday across the country, and by midday, around 30% of voters had cast their ballots. Initial results expected in the evening.
Security has been stepped up for the vote, taking place at 70,000 polling stations. Extra police have been deployed to the streets of Paris and elsewhere.
French President Francois Hollande cast his vote in Tulle in southwestern France. Hollande has been so unpopular in his presidency, he made the unusual decision not to run for a second term.
France suffered the worst terror attack on its soil under Hollande’s watch, with 130 people killed in the Paris attacks in November 2015.
It’s not yet clear how the vote will be affected by the attack Thursday on the landmark Champs Elysees boulevard in Paris, in which a policeman was killed.
But it was certainly in the minds of the candidates, including Hollande, who acknowledged France was experiencing troubled times.
“We are in a period, but this period is neither recent nor over, so we have to mobilize a lot of resources, in particular for the two days of vote for the presidential election and then the legislatives. And for the French I think it is the best message they can send, it’s to show that democracy is stronger than anything.”
Security has inevitably been an issue in campaigning, as have immigration and the economy. Many voters think current immigration policies have exacerbated France’s unemployment problems and contributed to the deadly terror attacks of the past couple of years.
The main candidates canceled campaign events Friday — the last day of campaigning — and instead made televised statements in which they competed to talk tough on security and vowed a crackdown on ISIS, which claimed the attack.
France, the world’s sixth-largest economy and a key player in Europe, has been under a state of emergency since the Paris attacks.
France is not the only European country seeing a wave of populist politics. In Germany, for example, the anti-immigrant party Alternative for Germany (AfD) has gained traction by exploiting concerns first about bailouts in the Eurozone and most recently the influx of migrants during Angela Merkel’s tenure as chancellor. Populist candidates have also shaken up electoral politics in Holland and Italy.
But what is clear is that there is a significant appetite for change.
“I’m not very political, (but) we can see in the world that things are not going quite as expected. In France, we can feel some people are not happy with the way things are going,” one voter told CNN in Paris.
Le Pen — who cast her vote Sunday morning in Hénin-Beaumont in northern France — told supporters in the run-up to the vote that if elected, she would put a moratorium even on legal immigration to the country, as well as closing “Islamist” mosques and expelling radicals. She has also vowed that if she wins, France will exit the European Union, as well as the border-free Schengen area.
Macron, 39, hopes to take the centrist path to the Elysee Palace, gathering support from left and right with promises to boost the economy and improve security. His party, “En Marche!” which was only created in September, now has more than 200,000 members and his meetings have attracted vast crowds.
But he has has never held elected office — he served as economy minister under Hollande before resigning last year — and his lack of experience, lack of established party and youth could count against him.
Fillon, the mainstream Republican candidate, was initially a frontrunner but his campaign stumbled thanks to a scandal over claims he paid his wife and children for work they did not do. He denies any wrongdoing. He has promised reforms to the French state and cuts to public spending, while boosting security.
Mélenchon has seen his popularity surge in recent weeks, following his impressive performances in the presidential television debates. But the 65-year-old’s policies — which include withdrawing from NATO and the International Monetary Fund, and renegotiating EU rules — are unlikely to appeal to all voters.