French head to polls in Australia, N. Zealand

French citizens in Australia and New Zealand began voting on Sunday in the first round of the country's presidential election that pits Socialist Francois Hollande against incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy.

Nearly 15,000 people are eligible to cast votes at eight centres across Australia while around 5,000 were expected at polling booths in Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch in New Zealand.

French living in Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina started voting Saturday in a new early arrangement designed to increase turnout while polls open at 0600 GMT in France. They close at 1800 GMT when the first predictions are expected.

With the country reeling from the eurozone debt crisis and unemployment recently hitting a 12-year high, the economy and public finances have topped the list of voters' concerns during the campaign.

In Sydney, there were queues outside the Alliance Francaise, one of three polling booths in the city, but voters were underwhelmed by the two main candidates.

"I tried to get interested in the campaign, but it's boring," Eugene Von Den Bulke, a software engineer, said of the race to whittle the 10 candidates down to two.

"I voted for (leftist) Jean-Luc Melenchon. It's a protest vote. He's the only one who puts the economy at the service of society and not the contrary."

Jerome Chevalier, who works at a Sydney hotel, said his vote went to Sarkozy.

"He proposes that the state will pay education fees for kids so it is good for my daughter. Plus, he doesn't want to tax French expats who own a property in France."

Despite having no government experience, Hollande, a 57-year-old moderate Socialist, is leading in most opinion polls and is the clear favourite to win the May 6 run-off vote.

The right-wing Sarkozy, also 57, has narrowed Hollande's first-round lead with an aggressive campaign focusing on issues such as security and immigration.

But his personal style and handling of the economy has alienated many and voters are expected to turn their backs on him after a single five-year term.

Communist-backed candidate Melenchon, the far-right's Marine Le Pen, centrist Francois Bayrou and the Greens' Eva Joly are among other candidates in the running.

About 45 million French people are registered to vote but pollsters say the campaign has failed to capture voters' imagination and are predicting a low turnout.

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