PARIS  - Turnout for the first round of France’s presidential vote was higher than predicted Sunday, hitting 70.59pc at 1500 GMT, but slightly lower than the 73.87pc at the same time in 2007. Polling firm IFOP meanwhile projected that turnout would hit 80pc by the end of voting at 1800 GMT, down slightly from the overall turnout in 2007 of 83.77pc. Pollsters had predicted that many voters could stay home during Sunday’s first round, which polls showed Socialist Francois Hollande winning over incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy. Turnout at mid-day had been at 28.29pc, down slightly from 31.21 per cent at the same stage in the 2007 race.

Final voter turnout in the first round in 2007 was exceptionally strong, and a lower turnout, such as the 71.6 per cent rate in 2002, would have benefited outsider candidates such as the far right’s Marine Le Pen.

In the 2002 first round, her father Jean-Marie Le Pen scored a stunning result that saw him go to the second round before being defeated by Jacques Chirac.

Polling opened at 8:00 am (0600 GMT) in mainland France and there were queues at many polling stations. Voting was to end between 6:00 pm and 8:00 pm in different parts of the country.

Sunday’s first round will whittle the field down from 10 candidates to two - in all likelihood Hollande and Sarkozy - and the frontrunners will face each other in a second-round run-off on May 6.