Paris: Centre-right French President Nicolas Sarkozy's career was on the line on Sunday as voters turned out in solid numbers for the first round of France's presidential election, a contest that could shake-up Europe's political landscape and approach to myriad economic troubles.

The first-round balloting will trim down a list of 10 candidates from across the political spectrum to two finalists for a May 6 runoff. Polls have shown that many voters are turned off by Sarkozy's flashy style as they worry about jobs and the economy.

The Interior Ministry said early turnout figures showed 28 percent of France's 44-million-plus voters cast ballots before noon, less than the 31 per cent in 2007 at the same time, but more than in the four previous races.

Sarkozy and his main expected challenger, Socialist nominee Francois Hollande, have pushed for a strong turnout on the idea that it would help the political mainstream and dilute the impact of more ideological voters.

Polls for months have shown that Sarkozy and Hollande are likely to make the cut and suggest Hollande would win the campaign finale.

"This is an election that will weigh on the future of Europe. That's why many people are watching us," said Hollande after voting in Tulle, a town in central France. "They're wondering not so much what the winner's name will be, but especially what policies will follow."

"That's why I'm not in a competition just of personalities. I am in a competition in which I must give new breath of life to my country and a new commitment to Europe," he added, urging a big turnout from voters.

Sarkozy waved to supporters and apologised to polling station attendants "for the big fuss" as he voted at a high school in posh western Paris along with his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, and a throng of journalists in tow. Behind barriers, a small crowd chanted "Bravo! Bravo!" as they left. He didn't speak to the media on the way out.

Sarkozy, defending his record on the campaign trail, has repeatedly pointed to a tough economic climate and debt troubles across Europe, not just in France.

But with turnout a looming question, surprises could await among candidates including far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen, Communist-backed firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon or centrist Francois Bayrou.

While they are not expected to win, a strong performance by one or all of them could cast a shadow over the second round vote. Polls show the five other candidates are expected to receive low single-digit percentages.
Balloting got under way on Saturday in France's embassies and overseas holdings. Polls have shown that concerns about jobs, with the unemployment rate hovering near a 10-year high, and the economy are top issues.