PARIS — French voters decided Sunday whether to choose pro-business independent Emmanuel Macron or far-right populist Marine Le Pen as their next president, casting ballots in an unusually tense and significant runoff that could also decide the fate of Europe.
With Macron as the pollsters' favourite, voting stations opened across mainland France on Sunday as 50,000 security forces guarded against extremist attacks. A security scare caused by a suspicious bag prompted a brief evacuation of the Louvre museum courtyard where Macron planned to celebrate election night.
The fate of the European Union may hang in the balance as France's 47 million voters decide whether to risk handing the presidency to Le Pen, who dreams of quitting the bloc and its common currency, or to play it safer with Macron, an unabashed pro-European who wants to strengthen the EU.
Global financial markets and France's neighbours are watching carefully. A "Frexit'' — a French departure from the EU — would be far more devastating than Britain's departure, since France is the second-biggest economy to use the euro. The country also is a central pillar of the EU and its mission of keeping post-war peace via trade and open borders.
France's Interior Ministry said voter turnout at 5 p.m. (1500 GMT) was running sharply lower than during the last presidential runoff in 2012. The ministry said 65 per cent of eligible voters had cast ballots, compared with 72 per cent at the same time five years ago.
Commentators think a low turnout might help Le Pen, whose supporters are seen as more likely to show up to vote. However, Macron had a strong lead over Le Pen in opinion polls ahead of the vote, roughly 60 per cent to 40 per cent.
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 kilometres away in Henin-Beaumont, a small town controlled by her far-right 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 to vote. For security reasons, he was driven to his polling station.
Le Pen, 48, was able to vote without 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.
French police and soldiers worked election day to secure the symbolic Paris venues where the next president will celebrate victory.
The grand internal courtyard of the Louvre, the renowned palace-turned-museum that Macron picked for his celebration party, reopened after several hundred journalists preparing for the election party had to leave because of the security alert over the suspicious bag.
The museum itself was not evacuated, and tourists continued entering and leaving. The Louvre is being already heavily guarded after an extremist attacked soldiers near the museum during the presidential campaign. Paris police said the evacuation Sunday was a "precautionary measure.''
As evening fell, Macron's supporters mingled with tourists on the picturesque plaza — still surrounded by heavily armed police.
If Le Pen wins, she plans to celebrate at the Chalet du Lac in the Bois de Vincennes, a vast park on Paris' eastern edge.
Campaign ended with massive hack
The most closely watched and unpredictable French presidential campaign in recent memory ended with a hacking attack and document leak targeting Macron on Friday night. France's government cybersecurity agency, ANSSI, is investigating the hack, which Macron's team says was aimed at destabilizing the vote.
France's election campaign commission said Saturday that "a significant amount of data'' — and some fake information — was leaked on social networks following the hacking attack on Macron. The leaked documents appeared largely mundane, and the perpetrators remain unknown.
The French presidential runoff will help gauge the strength of global populism after the victories last year of a referendum to take Britain out of the EU and Donald Trump's U.S. presidential campaign. In France, it is a test of whether voters are ready to overlook the racist and anti-Semitic past of Le Pen's National Front party.
Le Pen has broadened the party's appeal by tapping into — and fueling — anger at globalization and fears associated with immigration and Islamic extremism. Macron has argued that France must rethink its labour laws to better compete globally and appealed for unity and tolerance that Le Pen called naive.
Either candidate would lead France into uncharted territory, since neither comes from the mainstream parties that dominate parliament and have run the country for decades. The winner will have to try to build a parliamentary majority in an election next month to make major changes.
Margot Taieb, a 27-year-old Parisian voter who works in human resources, welcomed a change in the political scenery.
"This election has been really different, both from the campaign itself, and when you look at those who ran,'' she said at a Paris farmers' market. "So everything is different. The future will tell, but I'm positive about this.''
In the Mediterranean city of Marseille, voter Martine Vitiello was less enthusiastic.
"None of the candidates corresponded to my opinions, political and social,'' she said. She cast a ballot anyway, out of a sense of democratic duty.
John Leicester, Sylvie Corbet and Thomas Adamson in Paris and Alex Turnbull in Henin-Beaumont and Chris den Hond in Le Touquet contributed.