French voters are casting their ballot in the presidential runoff to choose between centrist incumbent Emmanuel Macron and far-right politician Marine Le Pen.
Opinion polls suggest that Macron, 44, has a solid lead, but analysts have cautioned that low turnout could sway the outcome in either direction. About 48.7 million citizens are eligible to vote.
Polling stations opened at 8am (06:00 GMT) on Sunday and close at 7pm (17:00 GMT) in most places, apart from big cities which have chosen to keep stations open until 8pm.
Macron’s popularity has taken a beating since 2017, but the war in Ukraine steadied his chances of re-election, particularly in light of the renewed Russian offensive in the East.
Marine Le Pen’s dogged focus on inflation and the cost of living have seen her perform better than in 2017.
Unlike previous elections where immigration, religion-versus-secularism and identity were front and centre, this election has been fought on two principle issues, purchasing power and security.
Le Pen has focused hard on the feeling that the voters’ money buys less: almost 70 percent of voters say their purchasing power has decreased under Macron’s first term.
Security and the ongoing war in Ukraine are other issues playing a key role in voters’ decision-making. They are seen as Macron’s strong point who did not spare an attack on Le Pen’s close ties to Russia during the presidential debate on April 20.
Macron also bitterly opposed her plan to make it illegal to wear the Muslim headscarf in public.
Polls have consistently predicted that Macron will win a second term. The race tightened during the first round of election, but he appears to have pulled away since then. They now suggest a Macron victory around the 56-44 percent range.
“It’s a stark choice the French face today. Both candidates offer a very different version for the way they see France in the future,” Al Jazeera’s Bernard Smith, reporting from the capital, Paris, said.
“Both candidates are also vying for the vote of the far-left, Jean-Luc Melenchon who was defeated in the first round just by 1 percent by Marine Le pen.
“Melanchon did not endorse Macron, he just said no vote should go to the far-right,” Smith said.
Analysts have warned though that the incumbent president, who rose to power in 2017 aged 39 as the country’s youngest ever modern leader, can take nothing for granted with turnout crucial to ensuring victory.
He must above all ensure that left-wing voters who backed other candidates in the first round on April 10 hold their noses and back the pro-European centrist former investment banker to stop anti-immigrant Le Pen winning power.
To take account of the time difference with mainland France, polls opened earlier in overseas territories, home to almost three million French.
The first vote in the election was cast midday on Saturday Paris time by a 90-year-old man in the tiny island territory of Saint Pierre and Miquelon off the northern coast of Canada.
Polls subsequently opened in France’s islands in the Caribbean and the South American territory of French Guiana, followed by territories in the Pacific and then the Indian Ocean before the mainland joined.