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Sarkozy braced for poll battle

French president Nicolas Sarkozy faces a tough fight against nine challengers on Sunday in presidential elections awash in fear and anger.

Political commentators have observed that the race for votes has been full of negative emotion and nostalgia for a more protected past: One of the world's top tourist destinations and biggest economies, France is feeling down about its debts, its immigrants and above all its future.

To voters, the conservative Sarkozy gets much of the blame. While he is likely to make it past Sunday's first-round voting and into the decisive second round on May 6, polls show his support waning. They predict another man will trounce Sarkozy in the run-off and take over the Elysee Palace: Socialist Francois Hollande.

Hollande has tapped into a fear of the free market that has always held more sway in France than almost anywhere in the west, and has enjoyed a resurgence in the era of Occupy Wall Street and anti-banker backlash.

He wants to tax high-income earners at 75% and reconsider a hard-won European fiscal treaty meant to stem the continent's debt crisis. He says it is too focused on cost-cutting and hurts ordinary folks.

Under a quirk of French electoral rules, balloting got under way on Saturday in France's embassies and overseas holdings, starting in tiny Saint Pierre and Miquelon - islands south of Newfoundland in the North Atlantic Ocean. Campaigning and the release of poll data have been suspended until the first-round results come in Sunday evening.

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