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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Contentious Election Sends French to Polls

PARIS -- French voters turned out in force Sunday in a presidential election offering divergent choices for the future, with conservative front-runner Nicolas Sarkozy urging the French to work more and Socialist Segolene Royal pledging to safeguard welfare protections.

Surveys suggest Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian immigrant, has a strong edge over Royal, who would become France's first female president if she wins. The most recent survey, taken by Ipsos-Dell on Friday, said he was leading 55 percent to her 45 percent.

By noon, turnout was over 34 percent, the highest midday rate in 33 years, the French Interior Ministry said. Results will be announced after the polls close at 8 p.m.

Both Sarkozy, who says he had to fight harder because of his foreign roots, and Royal, a mother of four who says she had to overcome sexism, are originals in French politics and energized an electorate craving a new direction.

Whoever wins, the race brings a generational shift, because a 50-something will replace outgoing President Jacques Chirac, 74. But Sarkozy and Royal, nicknamed Sarko and Sego, have radically different formulas for how to revive France's sluggish economy, reverse its declining clout in world affairs and improve the lives of the impoverished residents of housing projects where largely minority youth rioted in 2005.

Sarkozy, 52, says France's 35-hour work week is absurd and proposes relaxing labor laws to encourage hiring. As a former interior minister, Sarkozy cracked down on drunk driving, crime and illegal immigration.

He is an admirer of the United States who has borrowed from some U.S. policy ideas. Tough-talking and blunt, he alienated many in France's housing projects when he called young delinquents "scum."

Police were quietly keeping watch for possible unrest Sunday night in France's poor, predominantly immigrant neighborhoods if Sarkozy is elected. Authorities in the Seine-Saint-Denis region northeast of Paris -- the epicenter of the 2005 rioting -- refused officers' requests for days off Sunday, one official said.

To push through any change, the winner will need a majority in French legislative elections in June. Sarkozy has drawn up a program for his first 100 days in office and plans to put big reforms before the parliament at a special session in July. One bill would make overtime pay taxfree to encourage people to work more, and another would put in place tougher sentencing for repeat offenders.

Royal, 53, is a former environment minister who believes France must keep its welfare protections strong. She wants to raise the minimum wage, create 500,000 state-funded starter jobs for youths and build 120,000 subsidized housing units per year. But she's also pragmatic and acknowledges that the 35-hour work week has had benefits and drawbacks.

Royal is strong on the environment and schools but has made a series of foreign policy gaffes -- suggesting, for instance, that the Canadian province of Quebec deserved independence.

During the campaign, Sarkozy's camp portrayed Royal as a lightweight with unclear ideas, while hers painted him as brutal, a bully.