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Votes cast for French president

Voters in France have began casting ballots for Nicolas Sarkozy or Francois Hollande in a presidential election that could affect everything from Europe's efforts to fight its debt crisis to how long French troops stay in Afghanistan.

The final polls show Mr Sarkozy making up ground on his Socialist challenger before the election - but still suggest a Hollande victory.

Campaigning and the release of poll data have been suspended until the results of the run-off election come in on Sunday evening.

Mr Sarkozy predicts a "surprise" and Mr Hollande is urging voters to avoid complacency as the bitter campaign neared its climax, driven by fears about joblessness, immigration and France's economic future.

Mr Hollande spent the weekend in Tulle, the town in central France where he has his electoral base as legislator and one-time mayor. Mr Sarkozy is spending the day at home with his family in Paris.

Greeting shoppers in a market, Mr Hollande said he was "confident, but not sure" when asked about his chances of becoming France's next president."We wait for Sunday, I speak only about Sunday. Monday is another day," Mr Hollande said.

Under a quirk of French electoral rules, balloting got under way in France's embassies and overseas holdings, starting in tiny Saint Pierre and Miquelon - islands south of Newfoundland in the North Atlantic Ocean.

The election's outcome will impact Europe's efforts to fight its debt crisis, how long French troops stay in Afghanistan and how France exercises its military and diplomatic muscle around the world.

Mr Sarkozy, disliked by many voters for his handling of the economy, promised he could come out victorious. Speaking on Europe-1 radio on Friday, he said much will depend on whether French voters bother to cast ballots in an election that polls have always predicted Mr Hollande would win. But he also sounded increasingly philosophical and prepared for possible defeat.

Asked what he would do if he loses, Mr Sarkozy said simply: "There will be a handover of power. The nation follows its course. The nation is stronger than the destiny of the men who serve it."

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