PARIS (AP) -- French voters headed to polling stations nationwide Sunday for the first round of the country's presidential election, one that seemed for months like a shoo-in for French President Emmanuel Macron but is now a tossup amid a strong challenge from the far right's Marine Le Pen.
Macron, a centrist, is asking France's 48 million voters for a second five-year term -- but there are 11 other candidates and widespread voter apathy standing in his way. Many French also blame Macron for not doing enough to help them cope with the soaring costs of food, fuel and heating, or say he has ignored domestic concerns amid his focus on the war in Ukraine.
With war raging on the European Union's eastern border, this French presidential election has significant international implications, including the potential to reshape France's post-war identity and indicate whether European populism is on the ascendant or in the decline.
France is the 27-member bloc's second-largest economy after Germany, the only one with a U.N. Security Council veto, and its sole nuclear power. And as Russian President Vladimir Putin keeps up his military's assault on Ukraine, French power will help shape Europe's response. Macron is the only leading presidential candidate who fully supports the NATO military alliance.
The top two vote-getters in Sunday's election advance to a decisive runoff April 24 -- unless one candidate gets more than half of the nationwide vote Sunday, which has never happened in France.
France operates a manual system in which voters are obliged to cast paper ballots in person. People who can't do that can make arrangements ahead of time to authorize someone else to vote for them.
Bundled up against the April chill, voters lined up Sunday at one polling station in southern Paris even before it opened. Once inside, they placed their paper ballots into envelopes and then into a transparent box, many wearing masks or using hand gel as part of COVID-19 measures. In the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis, a small boy waited patiently for his father to complete his secret ballot by hand.
Polls on Sunday close at 7 p.m. (1700 GMT) in most places and an hour later in some larger cities. By noon, just over a quarter of France's electorate had cast ballots, slightly down from previous elections. Pundits before the vote suggested a low turnout could hurt Macron's chances, but it could also hurt Le Pen too.
Many presidential contenders made early visits to their own polling stations. Valerie Pecresse of the conservative Republican Party cast her vote in Velizy-Villacoublay, southwest of Paris. Le Pen showed up in Henin-Beaumont, a town in struggling northern France, while Macron and his wife voted in Le Touquet, a coastal resort town on the English Channel.
Far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon -- one of half a dozen candidates on the left -- has seen a late rise in the polls. Extreme-right pundit Eric Zemmour and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo of the Socialists are among others vying to be installed in the presidential Elysee Palace.
Macron for months looked like a shoo-in to become France's first president in 20 years to win a second term. But that scenario evaporated in the campaign's closing stages as the pain of inflation and rising gas, food and energy prices became the dominant election theme for many low-income households. They could drive many voters Sunday into the arms of Le Pen, Macron's political nemesis.
In 2017, Macron trounced Le Pen by a landslide to become France's youngest modern president. The win for the former banker -- now 44 -- was seen as a victory against populist, nationalist politics, coming in the wake of Donald Trump's election to the White House and Britain's vote to leave the European Union, both in 2016.
With populist Viktor Orban winning a fourth consecutive term as Hungary's prime minister just days ago, eyes have now turned to France's resurgent far-right candidates -- especially National Rally leader Le Pen, who wants to ban Muslim headscarves in French streets and halal and kosher butchers, and drastically reduce immigration from outside Europe.
If Macron wins, however, it will be seen as a victory for the EU, which has shown rare unity of late in responding to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Observers say a Macron reelection would spell real likelihood for increased cooperation and investment in European security and defense -- especially with a new pro-EU German government.
Russia's war in Ukraine has afforded Macron the chance to demonstrate his influence on the international stage and burnish his pro-NATO credentials in election debates. While he fully backs NATO, other candidates hold differing views on France's role within the alliance. Melenchon is among those who want to abandon NATO altogether, saying it produces nothing but squabbles and instability.
Such a development would deal a huge blow to an alliance built to protect its members as the Cold War emerged 73 years ago.