France kicks off presidential election
Tight race among 4 top contenders
PARIS — Early voting began overseas Saturday in France’s most nail-biting election in generations, and the 11 candidates seeking to become the country’s next president silenced their campaigns as required to give voters a period of reflection.
Opinion polls showed a tight race among the four top contenders vying to get into the May 7 presidential runoff that will decide who becomes France’s next head of state — and that will have the potential to determine how far the populist wave in Europe will go. But the polls for one of the most unpredictable elections in recent times also showed that decision was largely in the hands of the 1-in-3 French voters who are still undecided.
Polls opened in France’s far-flung overseas territories but won’t start until Sunday on the French mainland. France’s 10 percent unemployment, its lackluster economy and security issues top voters’ concerns.
The four leading candidates span the extremes of the political spectrum.
Polls suggested that farright nationalist Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, an independent centrist and former economy minister, were in the lead.
However, conservative Francois Fillon, a former prime minister whose campaign was initially derailed by corruption allegations that his wife was paid for noshow work as his aide, appeared to be closing the gap, as was far-leftist candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.
Security was tight — the government has mobilized more than 50,000 police and gendarmes to protect 70,000 polling stations, with an additional 7,000 soldiers on patrol.
Security is a prominent issue after a wave of extremist attacks on French soil, including a gunman who killed a Paris police officer Thursday night before being shot dead by security forces. The gunman carried a note praising the Islamic State group.
Voters made their choices in the Atlantic Ocean territories of Saint Pierre and Miquelon as well as in French Guiana in South America, the Caribbean’s Guadeloupe and elsewhere. Voters abroad could also cast ballots in French embassies Saturday.
The mad-dash campaigning of the last few weeks came to an abrupt halt after the Champs-Elysees gun attack by 39-year-old Karim Cheurfi. Three suspects close to the attacker remain in custody, the Paris prosecutor’s office said Saturday.
Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Fillon canceled their last campaign events Friday over security concerns. Mr. Macron did, too, but also accused his rivals of trying to capitalize on the attack with their anti-immigration, tough-on-security messages.
In a sign of how tense the country is, a man holding a knife caused widespread panic Saturday at Paris’ Gare du Nord train station. He was arrested and no one was hurt.
Well-wishers paid their respects Saturday at the site of the shooting, which was adorned with flowers, candles and messages of solidarity for the slain police officer, Xavier Jugele. Across from the Eiffel Tower, women from the group Angry Wives of Law Enforcement demonstrated against violence aimed at police.
Some believed French stoicism would prevent a lurch to the right in the presidential vote, even though the attack dominated headlines.
“These 48 hours are not going to change everything ... terrorism is now an everyday occurrence. It’s permanent, 24 hours a day. So we’re not afraid. If we’re believers in freedom, we must live with it,” said Marise Moron, a retired doctor.
“I’m not going to let myself be influenced by people who are trying to frighten us,” Paris resident AnneMarie Redouin said near the heavily-guarded Eiffel Tower.
Others, fearful that Ms. Le Pen has been strengthened by the instability, said they would shift their votes from fringe candidates to make sure to keep the far-right out of power.
The election is also widely being viewed as a ballot on the future of the 28-nation European Union. The farright Ms. Le Pen and the farleft Mr. Melenchon could pull France out of the bloc and its shared euro currency — a so-called “Frexit.”