Voters are choosing between 11 candidates in the most unpredictable contest in decades.
The vote “is really important, mainly because we really need a change in this country with all the difficulties we are facing and terrorism,” said Paris resident Alain Richaud, who was waiting to cast his vote.
Opinion polls point to a tight race among the four leading contenders vying to advance to the May 7 presidential runoff, when the top two candidates face off.
Polls suggest far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, an independent centrist and former economy minister, were in the lead. But conservative Francois Fillon, a former prime minister, who was embroiled in a scandal over alleged fake jobs appeared to be closing the gap, as was far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.
France’s 10 percent unemployment, its lackluster economy and security were issues that top concerns for the 47 million eligible voters.
The 11 candidates are voting throughout the day.
Several Femen activists were arrested after staging a topless protest against Le Pen meters from the polling station where the far-right leader was heading to vote. Police intervened and stopped the commotion minutes before Le Pen arrived to cast her ballot in the northern town of Henin-Beaumont. No one was hurt.
Macron, meanwhile, was the image of serenity as he posed for selfies with voters after casting his ballot in the coastal town of Le Touquet in northern France alongside his wife, Brigitte Macron.
Fillon will vote in Paris, but his wife, who’s been handed preliminary charges for her role in the fake jobs scandal that rocked her husband’s campaign, voted 155 miles away near their 14th century manor house in Sarthe.
Unpopular incumbent President Francois Hollande, who made the unusual move last year of pledging to not stand for re-election, voted in his political fiefdom of Tulle in Correze, southwestern France. The Socialist party’s current presidential candidate Benoit Hamon cast his ballot in Trappes, a Paris suburb.
“It’s definitely risky, but I have faith in the result even if an extreme candidate qualifies for the second round,” said Beatrice Schopflin, who was queuing to vote in Paris.
Love her or hate her, Le Pen is a real contender, CBS News foreign correspondent Elizabeth Palmer reports. Like Donald Trump, she talks about patriotism, cracking down on immigration and bringing back blue-collar jobs. But there’s a big difference: Le Pen’s main base is among the young.
Sylvain Hechon is 25 years old — an activist in the town of Maubeuge, a National Front stronghold. He’s in charge of the ground game — stuffing leaflets in mailboxes the old-fashioned way — but also posting campaign news on Facebook
CBS News visited Hechon the day before the Paris shooting, when he, like millions of young French people, were preoccupied with France’s economic woes. He showed us one of Le Pen’s videos aimed squarely at millennials who face an unemployment rate stuck at nearly 25 percent.
“Why are young people attracted to the National Front?” CBS News asked him.
“Young people believe that immigrants are stealing jobs our jobs,” he said. “Marine Le Pen will limit immigration even if she has to use the military.”
Pictures of waves of migrants coming ashore on European beaches resonate powerfully in the north of France, where the landscape is dotted with shuttered factories. And all that’s left of the coal mines that once employed thousands are old slag heaps covered with grass.
In the market town of Valencienne, Venus Beaudechon is out spreading Le Pen’s anti-free trade message.
“President Trump put his people first,” she says, “and we believe Le Pen would do that too — defend the French.”
Le Pen’s supporters believe passionately both in her and her agenda. But overall she remains a controversial figure.
Macron and Fillon are committed to European unity and would reform labor rules.
Political campaigning was banned from midnight Friday hours ahead of polls opening in France’s far-flung overseas territories such as Guadeloupe, French Polynesia and French Guiana, which all voted a day early Saturday.