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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

France Votes in Presidential Election

PARIS -- France began choosing a new president on Sunday in one of its most suspense-filled elections in recent times, after a frenzied campaign by a dozen contenders left many voters undecided.

Only four of the candidates, including conservative front-runner Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Segolene Royal, placing second in polls, had a real chance of being among the top two scorers who will face each other in a final round of voting on May 6.

The new president will succeed Jacques Chirac, who ends 12 years as head of state at the close of his second mandate, and must revive a large but listless economy and bring alienated young Muslims into French life, among a host of other problems.

For the first time, voting was staggered, with France's overseas territories going to the polls Saturday so that the votes of expatriates would be counted.

When polling stations threw open their doors in mainland France, no one could say with certainty whether the nation's 44.5 million potential voters would give Sarkozy and Royal, who hopes to become France's first female president, the top two spots.

Francois Bayrou, trying to open a middle course between France's left-right divide, is a wild card in the mix.

With his close, third-place showing in most polls, he threatens to steal votes from the Socialist candidate, as do five other leftists with no hope of winning, or from the right.

All three leading contenders are in their fifties and promise a new approach to politics. Each in his or her way has vowed to change the status quo. Royal is the first woman to become a serious contender for the French presidency.

One hour after polls opened, voter turnout was noticeably up at a school used as a voting station in the posh eighth district of Paris, poll workers said.

"The participation rate is about 30 percent more than five years ago," said Romain Pinault, adding that a second bureau had been placed at the school to handle a larger crowd after an increase in voter registration in the district.

Sarkozy, the former law-and-order interior minister, has the backing of the powerful Union for a Popular Movement, the governing party. Sarkozy, however, is distrusted by those who fear he could barrel France into a full market economy.

The eyes of the nation also were trained on extreme-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who stunned France in the 2002 presidential vote by making it to the final round against Chirac.

At 78, the anti-immigrant candidate who blames newcomers for French economic and social woes has promised another "big surprise" this year. But Sarkozy has worked unabashedly to seduce Le Pen voters, even proposing a ministry of immigration and national identity.

One factor that contributed to Le Pen's performance five years ago was the relatively low participation -- 71.6 percent.

Polls suggest the public has renewed its interest in politics. That, combined with the larger electorate this year, could be critical to the results.

But with at least one-third of the electorate saying they were undecided, suspense, and the outcome of the balloting, turned on that moment of isolation when each voter makes a choice.