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French voters pick new president amid heightened security
French voters decided Sunday whether to back pro-business independent Emmanuel Macron or far-right populist Marine Le Pen as their next president, casting ballots in an unusually tense and important presidential election that also could decide Europe's future.
With Macron the pollsters' favorite, voting stations opened across mainland France at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) under the watch of 50,000 security forces guarding against extremist attacks. A security scare caused by a suspicious bag prompted the brief evacuation of the Louvre museum courtyard where Macron plans to celebrate election night.
France's Interior Ministry said voter turnout at midday was running slightly lower than during the last presidential runoff in 2012. The ministry said 28 percent of eligible voters had cast ballots, compared with a half-day tally of 31 percent five years ago.
Commentators think a low turnout would benefit Le Pen, whose supporters are seen as more committed and therefore more likely to show up to vote.
Macron voted in the seaside resort of Le Touquet in northern France alongside his wife, Brigitte Macron. Le Pen cast her ballot just a hundred kilometers away in Henin-Beaumont, a small town controlled by her National Front party.
Macron, 39, a former Socialist economy minister and one-time banker who ran as an independent, was all smiles and petted a black dog as he stepped out of his vacation home. For security reasons, he was driven to his polling station nearby.
Le Pen, 48, was able to vote without any incident after feminist activists were briefly detained a couple of hours earlier Sunday for hanging a big anti-Le Pen banner from a church in the northern town.
Meanwhile, police and soldiers worked to secure the symbolic Paris venues where the next president will celebrate victory.