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Amid tight security, French voters cast ballots for their next president Sunday in a first-round poll that’s seen as a litmus test for the spread of populism around the world and a vote on the future of Europe. 11 candidates are on the ballot. (April 23)
AP

PARIS — French voters cast ballots Sunday in a tight presidential election that is a major test of the strength of a continent-wide backlash against Muslim immigration, European unity and security in the wake of a terror attack in the heart of this capital city.

Polls in advance of the election showed right-wing, anti-immigration candidate Marine Le Pen and independent centrist Emmanuel Macron were most likely to make the two-candidate runoff on May 7. Conservative Francois Fillon and far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon trailed narrowly.

Voter turnout is above 69% in the late afternoon, almost as high as the last presidential vote. The French Interior Ministry said Sunday turnout had reached 69.4%, compared to 70.6% in the first round of presidential voting in 2012.

Voting ends at 8 p.m. local time (2 p.m. ET) and exit polls are expected to follow shortly afterward, although projections may be delayed until Monday if the race is very close. By the late afternoon, turnout was reported to be high.

Voters are choosing between 11 candidates in the most unpredictable French election in decades. Unpopular Socialist President François Hollande is not running for re-election, unusual for an incumbent French leader. Each of the four front-runners have vastly different visions for how to govern France, and of French identity.

Le Pen wants to pull the nation out of the European Union and close the country’s borders to new immigrants. Macron, a former economy minister, has broken with France’s traditional left or right political leadership. He is viewed as business-friendly. Fillon, a former prime minister embroiled in a scandal over alleged fake jobs for his family, wants to shrink the size of the government and heavily invest in national security. Melenchon wants France to leave the NATO military alliance. He has proposed a 100% tax rate for the rich and would seek to spend billions on public housing and renewable energy projects.

If Le Pen or Melenchon win a spot in the runoff, it will be seen as a victory for the rising wave of populism reflected by the votes for Donald Trump and Brexit — the British departure from the EU. Melenchon is also a Euro-sceptic, although he has stopped short of explicitly calling for France’s withdrawal from the EU.

Surveys show that Macron would likely easily win a second-round vote no matter who he faces. The outcomes of other theoretical match-ups are harder to predict.

Jean-Baptiste, 54, a public relations executive in Paris, worried Sunday that if the second-round vote turns out to be a choice between Le Pen and Melenchon it would take France “straight into disaster” because if “France leaves the European Union, it would be the end of the EU.”

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France is one of the six founding members of the EU and the shock of its departure would be much harder to absorb than that of Britain’s.

France’s stagnant economy, its 10% unemployment rate and national security concerns have topped concerns for the 47 million eligible voters. France has been under a state of emergency since the November 2015 terror attacks in Paris and there has been a steady drip of terrorism incidents in France over the last few years.

About 60,000 police and soldiers have been deployed across the country to secure polling stations for Sunday’s vote.

Karim Cheurfi, a convicted criminal who was on a watch-list for extremism, used a Kalashnikov assault rifle in the deadly attack on the Champs-Elysees Thursday in which a police officer was shot and killed. A letter defending the Islamic State group was found near his body and it subsequently claimed responsibility for the attack.

“What happened reinforces Le Pen’s message,” said National Front (Le Pen’s party) supporter Alain Prevost, 65, a retired former oil company executives, referring to Thursday’s attack. “I picked the National Front because I am a man of order. This pushes me toward the party that is most able to restore order.”

Trump told the Associated Press on Friday that he was not officially endorsing Le Pen but he thought the attack would “probably help” her because she is the candidate who is “strongest on borders, and she’s the strongest on what’s been going on in France.”

On Sunday, Trump tweeted that there was a “very interesting election currently taking place in France.”

Thursday’s attack could play in Fillon’s favor, who has a tough-on-terrorism image, said Paris-based political analyst Guillaume Tabard.

Gaelle Salaun, 42, a graphic designer, said he was voting for the Communist Party-backed Melenchon because he is “a man who turned toward the people, not the banks.” Melenchon’s victory, Salaun said, would mean “the rich would be less rich and the poor would be less poor.”

Bhatti reported from Berlin; Kim Hjelmgaard contributed from London.

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