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France votes on Sunday in cliffhanger presidential election

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A voter walks past election poster of Marine Le Pen and of Manuel Macron for the going voting for the French presidential election at the Palexpo poll...

A voter walks past election poster of Marine Le Pen and of Manuel Macron for the going voting for the French presidential election at the Palexpo poll... (AP photo)

PARIS, April 10 (Reuters) - Voters cast their ballots across France on Sunday in the first round of a presidential election in which far-right candidate Marine Le Pen is posing an unexpected threat to President Emmanuel Macron's re-election hopes.

Polling stations opened at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) and will close at 1800 GMT, when the first exit polls will be published. Such polls are usually very reliable in France.

Until just weeks ago, opinion polls pointed to an easy win for the pro-European Union, centrist Macron, who was boosted by his active diplomacy over Ukraine, a strong economic recovery and the weakness of a fragmented opposition.

PARIS, April 10 (Reuters) - Voters cast their ballots across France on Sunday in the first round of a presidential election in which far-right candidate Marine Le Pen is posing an unexpected threat to President Emmanuel Macron's re-election hopes.

Polling stations opened at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) and will close at 1800 GMT, when the first exit polls will be published. Such polls are usually very reliable in France.

Until just weeks ago, opinion polls pointed to an easy win for the pro-European Union, centrist Macron, who was boosted by his active diplomacy over Ukraine, a strong economic recovery and the weakness of a fragmented opposition.

In contrast, the anti-immigration, eurosceptic far-right Le Pen has been boosted by a months-long focus on cost of living issues and a big drop in support for her rival on the far-right, Eric Zemmour.

"We've long been known for our views on immigration, but what we're putting forward now is the social problems in this country," said Steeve Briois, a mayor for Le Pen's National Rally party in the northern French town of Henin-Beaumont.

Opinion polls published before a campaign blackout that started at midnight on Friday still had Macron leading the first round and winning a runoff against Le Pen on April 24. But those same polls said it would be tight, as Le Pen narrowed the gap, with some even seeing her victory within the margin of error.

RUNOFF RISKS FOR MACRON

Macron, 44 and in office since 2017, spent the last days of campaigning trying to make the point that Le Pen's programme has not changed despite efforts to soften her image and that of her National Rally party.

In Sevres, just outside Paris, 58-year old aeronautical engineer Jacques Poggio said that while he backed Macron five years ago, he now voted for the hard-left Jean-Luc Melenchon, because he was disappointed with Macron's "very right-wing signals – in opposition to some of the discourse that brought him into power."

Melenchon has been running third in opinion polls and his campaign has urged left-wing voters of all stripes to switch to him and send him into the runoff.

Macron was elected in 2017 on a neither-left-nor-right centrist platform but his economic and security policies veered to the right.

Assuming that Macron and Le Pen go through to the runoff, the president faces a problem: many left-wing voters have told pollsters that, unlike in 2017, they would not cast a ballot for Macron in the runoff purely to keep Le Pen out of power.

Macron will need to persuade them to change their minds and vote for him in the second round.

Sunday's vote will show who the unusually high number of late undecided voters will pick, and whether Le Pen, 53, can exceed opinion poll predictions and come out top in the first round.

Macron and Le Pen agreed the outcome was wide open.

"Everything is possible," Le Pen told supporters on Thursday, while earlier in the week Macron warned his followers not to discount a Le Pen win.

"Look at what happened with Brexit, and so many other elections: what looked improbable actually happened," he said.