By John Ikani
Polling stations have opened across mainland France for the first round of a fiercely contested presidential election.
Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen are the frontrunners among the 12 candidates to win through to the second round in two weeks but opinion polls have suggested the race will be close.
Macron is seeking to become the first French President to win re-election since Jacques Chirac in 2002.
Until just weeks ago, opinion polls pointed to an easy win for the pro-European Union, centrist Macron, who was boosted by his active diplomacy over Ukraine, a strong economic recovery and the weakness of a fragmented opposition.
But his late entry into the campaign, with only one major rally that even his supporters found underwhelming, and his focus on an unpopular plan to increase the retirement age, have dented the President’s ratings, along with a steep rise in inflation.
Le Pen, in stark contrast to Macron, has embarked on a campaign trail that has largely focused on domestic issues, particularly on purchasing power, which voters said was their primary concern.
Political analysts say Le Pen’s focus on the rising cost of living could pay dividends, as the spiking prices of everyday goods and energy are among the main concerns of the electorate.
Many experts also expected the war to hurt the Le Pen as she had previously spoken fondly of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Le Pen scrapped a campaign leaflet with a photo of her visiting the Russian leader.
French television channels will broadcast projections of the final results as soon as polls close at 18:00 GMT.
The two frontrunners will head into the second round of elections on April 24, a repeat of the 2017 elections that Macron won by a landslide.