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World watches French vote

PARIS, France (CNN) -- French voters are choosing their next president as the world watches to see if they will choose a far-right anti-immigration candidate.

Incumbent Jacques Chirac is expected to fend off Jean-Marie Le Pen's challenge but there has been little faith in opinion polls since the first round of voting when pollsters failed to predict the nationalist's support.

Both men voted early -- Chirac in central Paris and Le Pen in the southwest Paris suburb of Saint-Cloud -- as voters across the country turned out under grey skies.

Voter apathy has been named as one of the reasons that Le Pen managed to beat Prime Minister Lionel Jospin in the first round but in Sunday's voter turnout was faster than in the first round.

By 5pm local time (1500 GMT) voter turnout had outstripped that in the first round, when heavy abstentions helped push Le Pen into second place.

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The Interior Ministry said on Sunday that 67.60 percent of voters had cast their votes with just one hour of polling to go in most of the country and three hours left in major cities.

That compared to 58.55 percent by the same time in the April 21 first round.

Chirac called on voters of all political persuasion to unite behind him against the extremism of Le Pen.

The nationalist Le Pen, who wants to withdraw France from the European Union and end immigration, has labelled Chirac a crook after he became embroiled in a corruption probe.

After voting Le Pen said: "I'm expecting whatever they (the voters) give me."

His presence in the runoff, at the cost of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin who was third in the first round of voting, has angered many in France.

Newspapers -- even those with left leaning views -- have called on readers to vote Chirac and hundreds of thousands of people have marched against Le Pen in cities across the country.

International footballer Robert Pires said his teammates could boycott the World Cup should Le Pen win because many in the squad come from former French colonies and would not be eligible to play under a Le Pen presidency.

Opinion polls have suggested Chirac could have won as much as 80 percent of the vote by the time polling stations close at 8 p.m. local time (2000 GMT).

Chirac adviser Pierre Lequiller told CNN: "Chirac calls on all French people to fight for democracy, liberty and respect of other human beings and to oppose the racism of Le Pen."

Le Pen's success on April 21 stunned France and sent shockwaves across the continent.

Jospin announced his intention to quit national politics after coming third behind Le Pen and Chirac.

The socialist prime minister has since rallied behind Chirac to keep Le Pen out of the presidential palace.

Jospin allies on the left have urged people to vote for Chirac, even if they find it distasteful, in order to stop Le Pen, whom they denounce as a dangerous extremist. Chirac, who refused a televised debate with Le Pen, has made the same pitch.

"We must reject extremism in the name of the honour of France, in the name of the unity of our own nation," he said. "I call on all French to massively vote for republican ideals against the extreme right."

Chirac, 69, the candidate of the centre-right Rally for the Republic, is seeking a second term. But amid allegations of corruption and concern about rising crime, he could clear barely 20 percent of the vote in the first round against 15 other candidates.

Le Pen, 73, leader of the National Front, is making his fourth bid for France's top post. A former paratrooper with the Foreign Legion who lost an eye in a political brawl in 1956, he has taken a populist tone, urging the French people to reject traditional, mainstream politicians who he said failed to reduce crime, unemployment and immigration.

"As a man of the people, I will always be on the side of those who suffer," he said. "Because I know the cold, I know poverty. I want to rebuild the coherence of our great people."

Le Pen's platform includes restoring the death penalty, imposing tariffs to protect French industry and bringing back the franc, the national currency replaced last year by the euro.

His calls for reserving jobs and social benefits for French citizens -- "France for the French" -- have led critics to brand him as racist and xenophobic.

Le Pen was found guilty in 1990 under a French law which bans denial of the Holocaust after he said Nazi gas chambers were a historical detail. But he steadfastly denies he is anti-Semitic.

French observers are now looking forward parliamentary elections and to seeing what impact the Le Pen phenomenon will have.

Those elections, held in two rounds on June 9 and 16, will determine the colour of the next government.




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