PARIS (Reuters) - Sunshine, discount cinema tickets and other incentives greeted keen French voters on Sunday, with many standing in long queues to cast their ballot for president.
Opinion polls show right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Segolene Royal are favourites to reach a May 6 runoff.
But with millions undecided until shortly before the vote and a massive turnout helped by perfect spring weather, their lead seemed far from certain.
“I decided when I got up this morning, based on my mood. I cast an empty ballot,” said Vincent Brun, 25, in the eastern city of Strasbourg, meaning that his vote would not count.
“I was not satisfied with what was on offer,” Brun added.
After a jump in registrations, long queues were seen at polling stations across France, including roughly 20 stations in the southern city of Marseille that opened late because of glue and nails blocking the locks to their doors.
“Participation is definitely on the rise. It’s at least up 20 percent from 2002,” said Baker Djian, head of a polling station in central Paris.
Incentives to vote included a puppet show near the northern city of Lille offering free tickets to those with a voters’ card showing they had voted, and a cinema giving discounts to voters in the northern town of Saint-Omer.
“If we continue not voting, what will happen? So much the better if it encourages one or two people to go and vote,” said Bernard Coppey, cinema director in Saint-Omer.
Hotels have offered discounts to voters in a bid to counter the slump they usually see on election weekends, and food delivery firms such as caterers and pizza chains banked on a jump in business thanks to election night parties.
One catering firm, Premiere Etoile, offered a special dish for each main candidate -- a “sweet and feminine” poultry fricassee for Royal “with a touch of sourness”, grilled lamb for Sarkozy “for carnivores who like intense flavours” and duck for centrist Francois Bayrou from his native southwestern France.
Polls last week showed a third of voters were undecided, partly because of dissatisfaction with the candidates.
Lying in wait are Bayrou, third in opinion polls, and far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who stunned France by qualifying for the runoff in 2002.
Le Pen’s shock elimination of the Socialist Lionel Jospin in 2002 has led many voters to support one of the main candidates from the outset rather than back a no-hoper in the first round to protest against what they see as uninspiring frontrunners.
“Usually I vote for the smaller candidates but this time I voted for one of the main ones,” Laurence Rouquette, a 40-year-old antiques dealer, said after she voted in the wealthy Paris suburb of Le Vesinet.
“I don’t want it to be a Bayrou-Segolene runoff. I want it to be a Sarkozy-Segolene runoff,” she added.
Sarkozy, a former interior minister who took a tough line on law and order and tightened immigration rules, found less support in Venissieux, a poor suburb of Lyon, one of many such areas where citizens’ groups encouraged voters to register.
“I will vote for the first time this year, against Nicolas Sarkozy,” said Venissieux market trader Ilhyes Ayadi, 28.
“He wants too much severity. He tars everyone with the same brush. I reacted against Nicolas Sarkozy because he scares me,” he said, echoing the comments of others in the neighbourhood.
Sarkozy’s campaign posters are frequently defaced on the official displays given to each candidate near polling stations. In one run-down suburb of the southwestern city of Bordeaux, his hoarding had gone missing while the others remained in place.
Additional reporting by Marine Jobert in Strasbourg, Catherine Lagrange in Lyon, Jean-Yves de Saint-Cerant in Bordeaux, Jean-Francois Rosnoblet in Marseille, Pierre Savary in Lille and Dominique Vidalon in Paris