Radical options on offer as French vote nears climax

PARIS, April 23 (Reuters) - France voted on Sunday in the first round of a bitterly fought presidential election that could define the future of the European Union, and is sure to be seen as a gauge of the anti-establishment anger that has brought upsets in Western politics.

Over 50,000 police and 7,000 soldiers backed by rapid response units patrolled streets three days after a suspected Islamist gunman shot dead a policeman and wounded two others in the heart of the capital, Paris.

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scandal creates anti-establishment feelings in France
Stephane Dominois, 46, holds a blackboard with the word "logement" (housing), the most important election issue for him, as he poses for Reuters in Chartres, France February 1, 2017. He said: "Everybody has the right to live, but when it comes to housing, French people must have priority." REUTERS/Stephane Mahe
Patricia Breard, 53, a nurse, holds a blackboard with the words "avenir des jeunes" (future for young people), the most important election issue for her, as she poses for Reuters in Chartres, France February 1, 2017. She said: "Today I wouldn't want to have kids. I'd be too worried about their future." REUTERS/Stephane Mahe 
Kevin Ndongala, 22, a student, holds a blackboard with the word "social", the most important election issue for him, as he poses for Reuters in Chartres, France February 1, 2017. He said: "I hear many candidates saying we have too many public sector workers in France, but that's not true. We need them all." REUTERS/Stephane Mahe 
Marie-Laure Mathonnat, 54, a public sector worker, holds a blackboard with the word "ecologie" (ecology), the most important election issue for her, as she poses for Reuters in Chartres, France February 1, 2017. She said: "I have always voted, but this time, really, I don't think I'll go. I'm fed up with politics. I don't believe in it anymore." REUTERS/Stephane Mahe 
Marie-Francoise Lagente, 77, retired, holds a blackboard with the word "integration", the most important election issue for her, as she poses for Reuters in Chartres, France February 1, 2017. She said: "There are some factors that mean you will always be a foreigner if you leave your country. I love to travel, but I don't believe we can accept everybody coming to our country." REUTERS/Stephane Mahe 
Mehdi Belhabassi, 21, a shop assistant, holds a blackboard with the word "unite" (unity), the most important election issue for him, as he poses for Reuters in Chartres, France February 1, 2017. He said: "It's important for us to live together in peace and respect each other. No matter where we come from, we're all French and we're all equal." REUTERS/Stephane Mahe 
Jean-Claude P, 68, retired, holds a blackboard with the word "paix" (peace), the most important election issue for him, as he poses for Reuters in Chartres, France February 1, 2017. He said: "I dream of a politician that would give us work and peace. Peace in the world, that's the most important thing." REUTERS/Stephane Mahe 
Nathalie Harlingue, 41, a school teacher, holds a blackboard with the word "education", the most important election issue for her, as she poses for Reuters in Chartres, France February 1, 2017. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe 
Francois Dore, 83, retired, holds a blackboard with the word "sante" (health), the most important election issue for him, as he poses for Reuters in Chartres, France February 1, 2017. He said: "I have a toothache, and I couldn't find a dentist." REUTERS/Stephane Mahe 
Jean-Luc Pfister, 57, a social worker, holds a blackboard with the word "solidarite" (solidarity), the most important election issue for him, as he poses for Reuters in Chartres, France February 1, 2017. He said: "We need more of that. The gap between the superrich and the rest of us is far too wide." REUTERS/Stephane Mahe 
Jean-Louis Lachevre, 66, holds a blackboard with the word "integrite" (integrity), the most important election issue for him, as he poses for Reuters in Chartres, France February 1, 2017. He said: "Our politicians are more or less the same. There aren't many with clean hands." REUTERS/Stephane Mahe 
Malika Etchekopar-Etchart, 38, unemployed, holds a blackboard with the word "chomage" (unemployment), the most important election issue for her, as she poses for Reuters in Chartres, France February 1, 2017. She said: "It's more and more difficult to find a job. A few years back, it was a lot easier." REUTERS/Stephane Mahe 
Julien Ambrosio, 27, a salesman, holds a blackboard with the word "confiance" (trust), the most important election issue for him, as he poses for Reuters in Chartres, France February 1, 2017. He said: "We must be able to trust our politicians, but that's more and more difficult with what's going on at the moment." REUTERS/Stephane Mahe 
Maurice Beauzac, 86, retired, holds a blackboard with the word "integrite" (integrity), the most important election issue for him, as he poses for Reuters in Chartres, France February 1, 2017. He said: "When a politician tells you he's honest, you'd like to believe him, but you can't judge a book by its cover." REUTERS/Stephane Mahe 
Jean-Louis Granjon, 63, retired, holds a blackboard with the word "integrite" (integrity), the most important election issue for him, as he poses for Reuters in Chartres, France February 1, 2017. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe 
Cathy Dos Santos, 21, unemployed, holds a blackboard with the word "honnetete" (honesty), the most important election issue for her, as she poses for Reuters in Chartres, France February 1, 2017. She said: "Being honest means voting according to your own feelings and not letting others tell you what you should do." REUTERS/Stephane Mahe 
Bruno Sauvage, 52, unemployed, holds a blackboard with the word "corruption", the most important election issue for him, as he poses for Reuters in Chartres, France February 1, 2017. He said: "Politicians give us lessons, but they'd better look at themselves in a mirror." REUTERS/Stephane Mahe 
Christophe Rouze, 58, an actor, holds a blackboard with the word "integrite" (integrity), the most important election issue for him, as he poses for Reuters in Chartres, France February 1, 2017. He said: "Politicians ask us to trust them, but we feel like the fall guys in a big farce." REUTERS/Stephane Mahe 
Jacques Gioanetti, 68, retired, holds a blackboard with the word "honnetete" (honesty), the most important election issue for him, as he poses for Reuters in Chartres, France February 1, 2017. He said: "In politics today, it's one for all, all rotten. Promises are made but never kept." REUTERS/Stephane Mahe 
Nathalie Reperant, 45, an insurance company employee, holds a blackboard with the word "chomage" (unemployment), the most important election issue for her, as she poses for Reuters in Chartres, France February 1, 2017. She said: "Without a job and money, you're on your way to hell." REUTERS/Stephane Mahe 
Francoise Fichet, 69, retired, holds a blackboard with the word "chomage" (unemployment), the most important election issue for her, as she poses for Reuters in Chartres, France February 1, 2017. She said: "I don't hear anything extraordinary from our politicians even if some of their proposals do make sense." REUTERS/Stephane Mahe 
Richard Martinez, 40, holds a blackboard with the word "emploi" (employment), the most important election issue for him, as he poses for Reuters in Chartres, France February 1, 2017. He said: "The social climate is getting more and more difficult, even in developed countries in the western world." REUTERS/Stephane Mahe 
Nicolas Leroy, 29, a commercial employee, holds a blackboard with the phrase "baisse du chomage" (lowering unemployment), the most important election issue for him, as he poses for Reuters in Chartres, France February 1, 2017. He said: "The most important thing in our society is jobs. If you have one, you're alright. If you don't, you're in deep trouble." REUTERS/Stephane Mahe 
Bruno Grausem, 44, a sales representative, holds a blackboard with the phrase "pouvoir d'achat" (purchasing power), the most important election issue for him, as he poses for Reuters in Chartres, France February 1, 2017. He said: "I would love for people to be able to buy something from me without having to ask me a thousand questions." REUTERS/Stephane Mahe 
A person sticks to a board a note showing the election issue that is most important to them, in Chartres, France February 1, 2017. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe 
Stephane Cordier, First Federal Secretary of the Eure-et-Loir department Socialist Party, poses for a photograph at the Socialist Party local offices in Mainvilliers, near Chartres, France February 2, 2017. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe 
Aleksandar Nikolic, Secretary of the National Front (FN) Eure-et-Loir department committee, poses for a photograph at the FN local offices, in Luce, near Chartres, France February 2, 2017. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe 
A portrait of Marie Le Pen hangs on the wall at a Front National office in Luce, near Chartres, France February 2, 2017. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe 
Jean-Pierre Gorges, mayor of Chartres, poses for a photograph in his office at City Hall in Chartres, France February 1, 2017. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe 
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Voters will decide whether to back a pro-EU centrist newcomer, a scandal-ridden veteran conservative who wants to slash public expenditure, a far-left eurosceptic admirer of Fidel Castro, or a far-right nationalist who, as France's first woman president, would shut borders and ditch the euro.

The last polling stations were due to close at 8 p.m. (1800 GMT), and projections were likely to give early pointers to the outcome soon after.

The outcome will show whether the populist tide that saw Britain vote to leave the EU and Donald Trump elected president of the United States is still rising, or starting to ebb.

But it also provides a choice between radically different recipes for reviving a listless economy that lags its neighbors, and where almost a quarter of under-25s have no job.

A high level of indecision added to the nervousness.

Hanan Fanidi, a 33-year-old financial project manager, was still unsure as she arrived at a polling station in Paris's 18th arrondissement.

"I don't believe in anyone, actually. I haven't arrived at any candidate in particular who could advance things," she said. "I'm very, very pessimistic."

Despite fears that broad disillusionment with politics could keep voters away, pollsters estimated that the turnout, in fair weather nationwide, would be broadly in line with the last election five years ago, at around 80 percent.

Emmanuel Macron, 39, a centrist ex-banker who set up his party just a year ago, is the opinion polls' favorite to win the first round and then beat far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen in the two-person runoff on May 7.

CHANGING THE LANDSCAPE

If they come first and second on Sunday, it would virtually reinvent a political landscape dominated for 60 years by mainstream groupings from the center-left and center-right.

"It wouldn't be the classic left-versus-right divide but two views of the world clashing," said Ifop pollsters' Jerome Fourquet. "Macron bills himself as the progressive versus conservatives, Le Pen as the patriot versus the globalists."

While Macron offers a vision of gradual economic deregulation that would cause few ripples on global financial markets, Le Pen proposes a more disruptive program of higher social spending, financed by money-printing, coupled with a withdrawal from the euro and possibly the EU.

Of the two other candidates close enough in opinion polls to be in with a good chance of making the runoff, Jean-Luc Melenchon offers a far-left tax-and-spend platform that has much in common with Le Pen's, although without her plans to restrict immigration.

And conservative Francois Fillon, rebounding after being plagued for months by a fake jobs scandal, promises economic shock therapy of deregulation and slashing taxes and state spending, cutting half a million state sector jobs.

The seven other candidates, including the ruling Socialist party's Benoit Hamon, lag far behind.

In a polling station in Lyon, long-time left-wing voter Julien Rossi, 42, said he had been won over by Macron. "We're from the same generation. He goes down well abroad. He's the most open of the candidates."

The turnout at 5 p.m. (1500 GMT) was 69.42 percent, according to official figures, compared to 70.59 percent in 2012. That year, the last polling stations closed at 7 p.m., an hour earlier than this year, and almost 80 percent eventually took part in the first round.

Some surveys have been predicting a turnout closer to the 70 percent that took the National Front's then-leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, into the second round in 2002. Pollsters are unclear whether a high or low turnout would favor his daughter in 2017.

IT'S THE ECONOMY

Pollsters say jobs, the economy and and the general trustworthiness of politicians are voters' main concerns.

But security has re-entered the debate since Thursday's killing of a policeman on the Avenue des Champs-Elysees, and the arrest in Marseille on Tuesday of two men suspected of planning an imminent Islamist attack.

Le Pen has emphasized the Islamist threat and promised tougher border controls, and some argue that the incident increases her chances. But previous attacks, such as the killing of 130 people in Paris by Islamist gunmen in November 2015 ahead of regional polls, have not appeared to affect voting.

One polling station in Besancon, in eastern France, was evacuated on Sunday after a stolen vehicle was abandoned nearby with the engine running.

The possibility of a Le Pen-Melenchon run-off is not the most likely scenario but is one that alarms bankers and investors.

While Macron wants to further beef up the euro zone, Le Pen has told supporters "the EU will die." She wants to return to the Franc, re-denominate the country's debt stock, tax imports and reject international treaties.

Melenchon also wants to radically overhaul the European Union and hold a referendum on whether to leave the bloc.

Both would struggle, in parliamentary elections in June, to win a majority to carry out such radical moves, but their growing popularity also worries France's EU partners.

"It is no secret that we will not be cheering madly should Sunday's result produce a second round between Le Pen and Melenchon," German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said.

(Additional reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta, Bate Felix and Michaela Cabrera in Paris and Ilze Filks in Henin-Beaumont; Writing by Ingrid Melander and Kevin Liffey; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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