French voters were making a strong showing at polling stations as they cast ballots in the first round of presidential elections. The poll is an acid test for President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose popularity is at a lowpoint.
Polling stations in France experienced the second highest turnout in any presidential election since 1981, as voters choose from a list of 10 candidates across the political spectrum on Sunday.
The Interior Ministry said early turnout figures showed 28 percent of eligible voters cast their ballot before midday - less than the 31 percent by noon in 2007, but more than in the four previous races.
In Paris, turnout was even higher than in 2007, at 21.68 percent compared with 20 percent. The 2007 poll saw an especially high final turnout of nearly 84 percent in the first round, as conservative candidate Nicolas Sarkozy fought it out with Socialist Segolene Royal.
Some 44.5 million people are eligible to cast votes. Polling stations close at 8 p.m. local time (1800 GMT), after which the first exit polls will be published.
The top contenders in this year's elections are expected to be incumbent President Sarkozy and the Socialist nominee, Francois Hollande. The frontrunners will face each other in a second-round run-off on May 6.
Sarkozy has done badly in recent polls, with the public frustrated at his personal style and his inability to keep pledges to pull the French economy out of the doldrums. He has said he will withdraw from politics if he loses.
Other major candidates include the far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen, the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon and centrist Francois Bayrou.
If Sarkozy loses the election, he will be the first president since Valery Giscard d'Estaing in 1981 not to win a second term.
Polls have shown that the top issues of the election are concern about unemployment, which is running near a 10-year high, and the French economy.
tj/ncy (AP, AFP, dpa)