Polling stations opened at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) and will close at 6 p.m. GMT, when the first exit polls will be released. These surveys are generally very reliable in France.

Until just a few weeks ago, opinion polls pointed to an easy victory for the pro-European Union, centrist Macron, who has been boosted by his active diplomacy on Ukraine, a strong economic recovery and the weakness of a fragmented opposition.

But his late entry into the campaign, with a single large rally that even his supporters found disappointing and his focus on an unpopular plan to raise the retirement age, rattled the president’s ratings, along with a sharp rise of inflation.

On the other hand, the far-right anti-immigration and eurosceptic Le Pen traveled France in complete confidence, all smiles, his supporters chanting “We will win! We will win!”.

She was spurred by a months-long focus on cost-of-living issues and a sharp drop in support for her far-right rival Eric Zemmour.

Opinion polls still see Macron leading in the first round and winning a second round against Le Pen on April 24, but several polls now indicate that is within the margin of error.

In Pontaumur, a village in central France, Simone Astier, 88, says she voted Macron but without real conviction.

“I’m never satisfied because there’s always something wrong. When I was young, it was de Gaulle and for me, no one ever replaced him,” she said, making reference to the post-war French president, Charles de Gaulle.

In Sèvres, on the outskirts of Paris, Gnagne N’dry, 62, said he voted for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, attracted by the plans of the radical left to increase the minimum wage, lower the retirement age and freeze gas prices.

“His ideas suit me, I’m a taxi driver,” he said. “With him, I would already be retired.”

Melenchon ranks third in opinion polls and his campaign has called on leftist voters of all stripes to switch to their candidate and send him into the second round.

In Paris, early voters included Anne Hidalgo, the capital’s mayor and socialist presidential candidate who is far behind the top candidates in opinion polls.

RUNOFF RISKS FOR MACRON

Macron, 44 and in office since 2017, has spent the final days of campaigning trying to argue that Le Pen’s agenda has not changed despite efforts to soften his image and that of his National Rally party.

Le Pen rejects allegations of racism and says his policy would benefit all French people, regardless of background.

Assuming Macron and Le Pen make it to the second round, the president faces a problem: Many voters on the left have told pollsters that, unlike in 2017, they would not vote for Macron in the second round just to prevent Le Pen to participate. Power.

Macron will have to persuade them to change their minds and vote for him in the second round.

Sunday’s vote will show who will choose the unusually high number of undecided late voters, and whether Le Pen, 53, can beat opinion poll forecasts and come out on top in the first round.

Macron and Le Pen agree that the outcome is wide open.

“Anything is possible,” Le Pen told supporters on Thursday, while earlier in the week Macron warned supporters not to overlook a Le Pen victory.

“Look at what happened with Brexit and so many other elections: what seemed unlikely actually happened,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Juliette Jabkhiro in Pontaumur, Mimosa Spencer in Sèvres, Elizabeth Pineau and Michel Rose in Paris; Writing by Ingrid Melander and Gus Trompiz; Editing by Frances Kerry and Angus MacSwan)

By Ingrid Melander