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Hollande and Sarkozy in Crucial Runoff in France

PARIS — French voters cast ballots on Sunday in the runoff of a closely watched presidential election that will have significant implications for Europe and the euro as the region struggles to emerge from a prolonged economic malaise.

Opinion polls in the final days showed the Socialist candidate, François Hollande, maintaining a narrow lead over President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose popularity, along with other incumbent leaders across Europe, has succumbed to the powerful undertow of unemployment, austerity and looming recession.

With anxieties rising again over the fate of the single currency, the election in France — as well as a snap parliamentary election in Greece on Sunday — is being closely watched in European capitals and particularly in Berlin, where Chancellor Angela Merkel has led the drive to cure the euro zone debt and banking crisis with deep budget cuts and caps on future spending.

Such policies have come at a heavy political price for many of Europe’s leaders, whose opponents, emboldened by waves of voter resentment, have vowed to challenge the German push for deficit and debt reduction in favor of measures to stimulate economic growth.

In France, the Socialists have not held the presidency for 17 years. Their choice amounts to either doubling down on the left’s traditions and ample — some say, unaffordable — welfare state, or moving farther toward the kinds of reforms aimed at trimming the state and opening French labor markets that Mr. Sarkozy has long promised but has been largely unable to deliver.

At 5 p.m., Interior Ministry estimates put the turnout so far at just under 72 percent, slightly below than the 75 percent who have voted at the same point in the runoff vote five years ago between Mr. Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal, a Socialist, and Mr. Hollande’s former partner. About 46 million voters are registered for the runoff.

The last polling stations were scheduled to close at 8 p.m. and the first official result estimates were expected shortly thereafter. French law bars the early publication of exit polls, although media organizations in neighboring Belgium and Switzerland were expected to publish initial results online from districts where the polls close at 6 p.m. as soon as they are available — around 6:30 p.m.

Dressed in a dark suit and accompanied by his partner, the journalist Valérie Trierweiler, Mr. Hollande, 57, cast his vote Sunday morning in Tulle, the capital of his Corrèze constituency. Conceding that he had slept “only briefly” overnight, Mr. Hollande, told reporters he was bracing for a long day.

“It’s up to the French people to decide if it’s going to be a good day,” he said.

Under gray skies and amid intermittent rain showers, Nicole Hirsch, a 60-year-old retiree in the working-class 20th Arrondissement of Paris, said she was voting for Mr. Hollande in the hope that he would “bring the change that France needs.”

Lydia Sobieniak, 65, a former factory worker in Tulle, said she had also voted for Mr. Hollande, although she was unsure “if he’s capable of being president.”

“It’s going to be hard,” Ms. Sobieniak told The Associated Press. “Whoever it is there will be no miracles.”

Opinion polls published on Friday, the last day of campaigning, showed the gap between Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Hollande had narrowed to between four and five percentage points. While Mr. Sarkozy’s chances of retaining power appeared slim, he remained confident, predicting that the election would be decided by “a razor’s edge,” and spoke of a possible “surprise.”

Mr. Sarkozy’s campaign suffered double setbacks last week.

On Tuesday, Marine Le Pen — the candidate of the populist National Front who garnered 18 percent of the first-round vote — refused to endorse either the president or Mr. Hollande, saying she would cast a blank ballot. Then, on Friday, François Bayrou, a centrist who finished in fifth with 9 percent of the vote, endorsed Mr. Hollande.

Analysts have said Mr. Sarkozy will need the votes of an overwhelming majority of Ms. Le Pen’s supporters to win. But the latest surveys show the president getting little more than 50 percent of the National Front vote.

Mr. Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, cast their votes shortly before midday at a high school in the staid 16th Arrondissement of Paris. The couple left without speaking to the media.

Valentine Fauvel, a 23-year-old nursing student, said she voted for Mr. Sarkozy saying that he had done a good job “controlling the damage” during the global financial meltdown. “He had to deal with the crisis and he did it quite well,” she said.

But Ms. Fauvel was unhappy about the way the two front-runners had clashed during the final weeks of campaigning, calling in “a playground fight.”

Juan Carlos Velaure, a 57-year-old lawyer, said he voted for Mr. Hollande because he was fed up with Mr. Sarkozy’s governing style and his conception of the presidency. “He ruled over everyone,” Mr. Velaure said.

He remained unsure, however, whether Mr. Hollande would be up to the task of guiding France and Europe through the economic crisis.

“I don’t know if Hollande will help, but he is changing minds in Europe” about the need to stimulate growth along with achieving fiscal discipline, he said. “The future of France is uncertain. I couldn’t say if feel optimistic or pessimistic at this moment. We will have to see what the future holds.”

Maïa de la Baume, Eleanor Stanford, Roswana Khan, Elvire Camus and Palko Karasz contributed reporting.