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French head to the polls at critical moment for Europe

President Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist challenger Francois Hollande are among the 10 presidential candidates vying to be the two finalists in a May 6 runoff.

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TV images showed Hollande and several other candidates voting at polling stations around France. Some voters expressed disappointment about the crop of presidential aspirants, while others say France needs a new track.

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"I think most people are not satisfied with the last five years, people want change, especially in terms of job creation," said voter Eli Lazovsky, a 38-year-old hotel manager, after casting a ballot in a well-to-do Paris neighborhood off the Champs-Elysees.

Hollande, in his Mr. Nice Guy kind of way, has tapped into a fear of the free market that has always held more sway in France than almost anywhere in the West, and has enjoyed a resurgence in the era of Occupy Wall Street and anti-banker backlash.

Hollande wants to tax high-income earners at 75 percent and reconsider a hard-won European fiscal treaty meant to stem the continent's debt crisis. He says it's too focused on cost-cutting and hurts ordinary folks.

More than anything else, this campaign is a referendum on the man currently in charge: Sarkozy inspired voters in 2007 with pledges to break with the past and make France a more dynamic economy.

Sarkozy's personal life a distraction?

After an initial wave of reforms, his momentum fizzled. His stormy personal life got in the way: He divorced months into office, then quickly married former supermodel Bruni and became seen as a bling-bling president more concerned with pleasing his super-rich friends than serving the public.

But municipal employee Marie-Francaise Gouyet said she didn't believe the polls that suggested that Sarkozy is likely to lose to Hollande in the second round. She said she favored the president's economic policies.

"We don't have the choice, we have to stick to austerity," she said, adding that she voted for Sarkozy. "'Sarko' put in place important reforms like for pensions. He has a good record for his first 5 years."

Entrepreneur Mohammed Derisse, who backs Hollande, countered: "We can't spend much more money. But the president has to do it with less pressure. Sarkozy was too much pressure. Hollande wants to do it in a soft way, not hurt the people."

The presidential election will determine the make-up of the next government and will finish just a month before elections for the National Assembly that is currently controlled by Sarkozy's conservatives.

Turnout in the 2007 first round was nearly 84 percent, the highest figure since the 1970s. Sarkozy is battling to avoid becoming France's first one-term president since Valery Giscard d'Estaing lost to Socialist Francois Mitterrand in 1981.

Sarkozy has said he'll pull out of politics if he loses.

* Cecile Brisson, Angela Charlton and Jonathan Shenfield in Paris and Masha Macpherson in Tulle, France, contributed to this report.

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