PARIS — French presidential candidates marked a one day truce Saturday on the eve of voting in a first-round poll to whittle the 10-strong field down to two frontrunners.
French election rules outlaw both campaigning and opinion polling on the last day of the race, but Socialist challenger Francois Hollande went into the weekend favourite to oust right-wing incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy.
The two 57-year-old political veterans are expected to win the two spots in the May 6 run-off, and polls suggest that the left-winger will comfortably win the battle to become one of the most powerful leaders in the world.
Parisians went about their business without being accosted by pamphleteers, while the campaigns' websites, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds were left without updates and broadcasters had to find other subjects to interview.
But, while Sarkozy ate lunch with campaign staff in Paris, Hollande did risk angering the electoral commission with a limited walkabout in his electoral stronghold, the rural town of Tulle in the central Correze region.
The Socialist leader insisted he was just visiting the market, as he would any weekend morning he was in town, but he did greet well-wishers.
"Rainy Saturday, happy Sunday," a florist declared, amid an intense shower.
"I hope so. Are you preparing flowers for tomorrow?" Hollande replied.
"Now's the time," she replied. "Yes, now's the time," he smiled.
Voting in the first round began on Saturday in France's far-flung overseas territories -- islands in the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans -- where 882,000 people enjoy full voting rights as citizens of the republic.
Off the coast of Canada, voting began at 8:00 am local time (1000 GMT) on the tiny French islands of St Pierre and Miquelon, with 4,923 registered voters, then voting moved on to Caribbean territories.
Meanwhile, expatriate French voters living around the world began queuing at their consulates to take part.
The left-wing daily Liberation emblazoned its front page with the headline "A strong left" against the backdrop of a blue ocean under open skies, mocking the slogan and imagery of Sarkozy's "A strong France" campaign.
The pro-Sarkozy Le Figaro stuck doggedly behind its champion, but doubts clouded its front page editorial, which warned all those thinking of voting far-right or centrist that second round would depend on the first.
Privately, Sarkozy's top supporters have begun to admit that if Sarkozy fails to regain the momentum and slip ahead of Hollande on Sunday, he will have too much ground left to make up before the May 6 showdown.
France is a nuclear-armed power, a permanent member of the UN Security Council and the tenth biggest economy in the world in terms of GDP. Its executive president wields extraordinary personal power.
Sarkozy has, in the teeth of much criticism of his hyperactive leadership style, made the office still more influential by downgrading the role of his prime minister and taking day-to-day charge of matters of state.
The eventual winner of the May 6 vote will still have to win legislative elections in June to make sure of his or her authority, but any French leader with a parliamentary majority has wide room to manoeuvre.
On Sunday, 85,000 polling stations will open around the mainland from 8:00 am (0600 GMT). Most will close at 6:00 pm, but in major cities they will stay open until 8:00 pm, when estimated results will be released.
In France, opinion poll institutes are permitted to take samples from ballot boxes during polling, so the estimates they release at 8:00 pm are generally an accurate measure of the result and the figures will lead television news.
More than 400 opinion polls have been conducted during the campaign, a third more than in the last race in 2007, and the vast majority tell the same story.
Hollande is expected to come in first place in the first round, closely followed by Sarkozy, so both ought to qualify for the run-off.
Three more candidates could break into double figures in percentage terms: far-right flag-bearer Marine Le Pen, hard-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon and veteran centrist Francois Bayrou.
While good scores would give these three a voice in national politics and their supporters a boost before the June parliamentary election, they will bow out on Sunday and leave the frontrunners to woo their voters.
This is where it gets tricky for Sarkozy, who is personally unpopular even among voters who broadly share his centre-right agenda. Hollande is expected to romp home comfortably on May 6, making Sarkozy a one-term leader.
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