PARIS - France voted in elections on Sunday which could make Nicolas Sarkozy the 11th European leader to be swept from office by the economic crisis and crown Francois Hollande as the nation's first Socialist president in nearly two decades.
Buoyed by a tide of anger at Sarkozy's inability to rein in rampant unemployment during his five-year term, Hollande was between four and eight points ahead in final opinion polls.
A wide margin of victory in Sunday's runoff would give the Socialist presidential candidate more authority to pursue his programme of adding growth-oriented policies to the austerity effort in France and Europe.
Casting his vote in the town of Tulle in central France, where he was mayor for seven years, Hollande took time to shake hands and kiss voters, many of whom he knows personally.
"It will be a long day. I do not know whether it will be a beautiful day, the French will decide on that," Hollande told Reuters, adding that he had slept little.
Sarkozy was greeted by cheering crowds when he arrived to vote at a school in an upmarket Paris neighbourhoood close to the home of his wife Carla Bruni, a former supermodel. "We are going to win" chanted supporters as the conservative leader briefly clasped the hands of well-wishers.
"Both Sarkozy and Hollande would be capable managers of the French economy but Sarkozy has created too much discord ... That is why I voted Hollande," photographer Gilles Leimdorfer told Reuters in Paris.
Polling stations are open from 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) to 6 p.m. (1600 GMT) on Sunday, and two hours later in big cities.
Initial turnout figures published by the Interior Ministry showed 30.7 percent of registered voters had cast their ballot by at midday (1000 GMT) despite cold and wet weather in much of France, topping the 28.3 percent at the same stage of the April 22 first round.
Politicians are not allowed to make public comments on election weekend, but Hollande told reporters on Friday he was worried that his lead over Sarkozy would shrink.
Reliable projections of the result based on a partial vote count will be published as soon as the last polling stations close. Media that publish exit polls or partial results before that risk fines and legal action.
Hollande voter Sylvie, a head nurse based in Paris, said she feared Sunday's result could give Hollande a lower margin than opinion polls have suggested. "The electorate has always been very evenly split, so we could head for something more towards 51-49 percent," she said.
Despite shaving a couple of points off Hollande's lead in the last days of a frenetic campaign, Sarkozy's own aides privately admit it would require a miracle for him to turn the odds in his favour and clinch a second term.
"I'd say he has one chance in six," a member of Sarkozy's inner circle told Reuters on condition of anonymity shortly before campaigning drew to a halt on Friday.
BNP Paribas economist Dominique Barbet said that uncertainty about the election outcome was extremely low.