olls opened across France on Sunday for the first round of the country’s presidential election.
Incumbent Emmanuel Macron has admitted that right-wing populist Marine Le Pen could beat him in the race to become head of state.
Opinion polls still see Macron ,44, leading the first round and winning a runoff against Le Pen, 53, on April 24, but several surveys now say this is within the margin of error.
Citizens will cast their vote from 8am to 7pm (5pm GMT) in most places and an hour later in some larger cities.
Unless someone gets more than half of the nationwide vote, there will be a second and decisive round between the top two candidates on Sunday, April 24.
Aside from Macron, far-right candidate Le Pen and far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon are among the prominent figures vying to take the presidential Elysee.
Macron had been the frontrunner for much of the election campaign.
But his popularity has wavered in recent weeks as the pain of inflation and soaring food and energy prices roared back as dominant election themes for many low-income households.
His late entry into the campaign as he concentrated on diplomacy over the conflict in Ukraine and his focus on an unpopular plan to increase the retirement age, have dented the president’s ratings.
This could drive many voters into the arms of far-right leader Le Pen who has grown in popularity after focusing on the cost of living crisis.
Macron trounced Le Pen by a landslide to become France’s youngest president in 2017.
The win for the former banker was seen as a victory against populist, nationalist politics, coming in the wake of Donald Trump’s election to the White House and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, both in 2016.
With populist Viktor Orban winning a fourth consecutive term as Hungary’s prime minister days ago, eyes have now turned to France’s resurgent far right candidates.
Controversial National Rally leader Le Pen wants to ban Muslim headscarves in streets and halal and kosher butchers. She also wants to drastically reduce immigration from outside Europe.
Meanwhile, if Macron wins, it will be seen as a victory for the European Union.
Observers say a Macron re-election would spell real likelihood for increased cooperation and investment in European security and defence — especially with a new pro-EU German government.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has afforded Macron the chance to demonstrate his influence on the international stage and burnish his pro-NATO credentials in election debates.
Macron is the only front-runner who supports the alliance while other candidates hold differing views on France’s role within it.
Melenchon is among those who want to abandon it altogether, saying it produces nothing but squabbles and instability.