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FRANCE VOTES

PARIS – Early voting began overseas Saturday in France’s most nail-biting election in generations, and the 11 candidates seeking to become the country’s next president silenced their campaigns as required to give voters a period of reflection.

Opinion polls pointed to a tight race among the four top contenders vying to get into the May 7 presidential runoff that will decide who becomes France’s next head of state. But the polls also said that decision was largely in the hands of the one-in-three French voters who were still undecided.

Polls opened in France’s far-flung overseas territories but voting wouldn’t start until Sunday on the French mainland. France’s 10 percent unemployment, its lackluster economy, and security issues topped voters’ concerns.

Political campaigning was banned from midnight Friday until the polls close at 8 p.m. Sunday.

Polls suggested that far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, an independent centrist and former economy minister, were in the lead.

However, conservative Francois Fillon, a former prime minister whose campaign was initially derailed by corruption allegations that his wife was paid for no-show work as his aide, appeared to be closing the gap, as was far-leftist candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.

Security was tight – the government mobilized more than 50,000 police and gendarmes to protect 70,000 polling stations, with an additional 7,000 soldiers on patrol.

Security was a prominent issue after a wave of extremist attacks on French soil, including a gunman who killed a Paris police officer Thursday night before being shot dead by security forces. The gunman carried a note praising the Islamic State group.

Voters made their choices in the Atlantic Ocean territories of Saint Pierre and Miquelon as well as in French Guiana in South America, the Caribbean’s Guadeloupe, and elsewhere. Voters abroad could also cast ballots in French embassies Saturday.

The mad-dash campaigning of the last few weeks came to an abrupt halt after the Champs-Elysees gun attack by 39-year-old Karim Cheurfi. Three suspects close to the attacker remain in custody, Agnes Thibault-Lecuivre of the Paris prosecutor’s office said Saturday.

Le Pen and Fillon canceled their last campaign events Friday over security concerns. Macron did too, but also accused his rivals of trying to capitalize on the attack with their anti-immigration, tough-on-security messages.

In a sign of how tense the country is, a man holding a knife caused widespread panic Saturday at Paris’ Gare du Nord train station. He was arrested and no one was hurt.

Well-wishers paid their respects Saturday at the site of the shooting, which was adorned with flowers, candles, and messages of solidarity for the slain police officer, Xavier Jugele. Across from the Eiffel Tower, women from the group Angry Wives of Law Enforcement demonstrated against violence aimed at police.

Some believed French stoicism would prevent a lurch to the right in the presidential vote, even though the attack dominated French headlines.

“These 48 hours are not going to change everything…terrorism is now an everyday occurrence. It’s permanent, 24 hours a day. So we’re not afraid. If we’re believers in freedom, we must live with it,” said Marise Moron, a retired doctor. (AP)

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