French voters cast ballots Sunday in a presidential election that offers a clear choice for the country's future, with conservative Nicolas Sarkozy urging France to work more and Socialist Segolene Royal pledging to safeguard welfare protections. Turnout was massive, reaching over 34 percent by noon, the highest rate going back at least five elections, the Interior Ministry said. Results will be announced after the polls close at 8 p.m. Surveys suggest Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian immigrant, has a strong edge over Royal, who would become France's first female president if she wins. The most recent survey, taken by Ipsos/Dell on Friday, said he was leading 55 percent to her 45 percent. Across France, polling stations opened at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT). Results will be announced after the polls close 12 hours later at 8 p.m.
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Both Sarkozy, who says he had to fight harder because of his foreign roots, and Royal, a mother of four who says she had to overcome sexism, are originals in French politics and energized an electorate craving new direction. Turnout in the April 22 first-round vote was an exceptional 84 percent.
Whoever wins, the race marks a generational shift, because a 50-something will replace 74-year-old Jacques Chirac, in office for 12 years. But Sarkozy and Royal, nicknamed Sarko and Sego, have radically different formulas for how to revive France's sluggish economy, reverse its declining clout in world affairs and improve the lives of the impoverished residents of housing projects where largely minority youth rioted in 2005.
Sarkozy, 52, says France's 35-hour work week is absurd, and he wants to make overtime pay tax-free to encourage people to work more. A former interior minister, Sarkozy cracked down on drunk driving, crime and illegal immigration, and he promises tougher sentencing for repeat offenders if he wins.
He is an admirer of the United States who has borrowed from some American policy ideas. Tough-talking and blunt, he won no fans in France's housing projects when he called young delinquents "scum."
Police were quietly keeping watch for possible unrest Sunday night in France's poor, predominantly immigrant neighborhoods if Sarkozy is elected. Authorities in the Seine-Saint-Denis region northeast of Paris - the epicenter of the 2005 rioting - refused officers' requests for days off Sunday, one official said.
Royal, 53, is a former environment minister who believes France must keep its welfare protections strong. She wants to raise the minimum wage, create 500,000 state-funded starter jobs for youths and build 120,000 subsidized housing units a year. On the campaign trail, she often talked about her four children, and she appealed to women to vote for her because she is female.
Royal is strong on the environment and schools but has made a series of foreign policy gaffes - suggesting, for instance, that the Canadian province of Quebec deserved independence.
This week, as poll numbers suggested Royal's chances were slim, she made a last-ditch effort to rip into Sarkozy, warning of the chance for new riots if he is elected and calling him "a dangerous choice" for France.
Sarkozy retorted in an interview published in Le Parisien newspaper's Web site: "I think that in the history of the Republic, we have never heard such violent or threatening comments."
On Saturday, the candidates stayed out of the public eye because French election rules forbid campaigning a day before the race. No polls or interviews were published Saturday.
The Ipsos/Dell poll released Friday, which suggested that Sarkozy had consolidated his lead to 55 percent, surveyed 992 registered voters. The margin of error for a poll of that size is about 3 percentage points. Other polls also suggested Sarkozy was ahead.