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April 22, 2017

PARIS (AP) — Election stations opened Saturday in French overseas territories that are voting first in France’s unpredictable presidential election — one day earlier than on the mainland. Opinion polls showed a tight race among four top contenders vying for the two places in the May 7 runoff which will decide who becomes the next head of state. But the polls also showed the future of France was largely in the hands of the one out of three voters who were undecided — as a deadly attack on the Champs-Elysees avenue clouded the last days of campaigning.

Political campaigning was banned from Saturday across France, and online, as polling centers opened in the far-flung Atlantic Ocean territories of Saint Pierre and Miquelon and French Guiana, as well as in the Caribbean’s Guadeloupe and elsewhere.

Unemployment and the economy topped voters’ concerns as first-round ballots are cast for one of 11 candidates in the most nail-biting French elections in generations. Security was also a prominent concern after a wave of extremist attacks on French soil, including Thursday’s attack by a gunman who fatally shot a police officer in Paris before being killed by security forces.

Polls suggested far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, an independent centrist and former economy minister, were in the lead. However, conservative former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, whose campaign was initially derailed by corruption allegations that his wife was paid as his non-working parliamentary aide, appeared to be closing the gap, as was far-leftist, Jean-Luc Melenchon.

The mad-dash campaigning of the last few weeks came to a premature end Friday hours 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.

On Saturday, flowers, candles and messages of solidarity with police adorned a makeshift memorial for the slain police officer, Xavier Jugele. Small groups of well-wishers continued to pay their respects at the site of the shooting.

Some believed French stoicism would prevent a lurch to the right, despite such predictions the shooting attack dominated newspaper headlines and the 24-hour television news cycle. “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, believers in freedom, we must live with it,” said Marise Moron, a retired doctor.

Others, fearful Le Pen has been strengthened by the instability, said they would shift their votes from fringe candidates and try to vote strategically to keep the far-right out of power. “With an attack such as this one, I think the National Front will get a good score. Therefore, I’m going to change my intention and I’m going to cast a useful vote. Either Melanchon, or Macron,” said physics teacher Omar Ilys, 44.

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