First steps towards Frexit?

France goes to the polls for the first round of the Presidential vote. Results are expected around 2 PM Eastern.

PARIS (AP) — Amid heightened security, French voters began casting ballots for their next president Sunday in a first-round poll that’s being seen as a litmus test for the future of Europe and the spread of populism around the world.

More than 50,000 police and gendarmes were deployed to protect 66,000 polling stations for Sunday’s election, which comes just three days after a deadly attack on Paris’s famed Champs-Elysees Avenue in which a police officer and a gunman were slain. Another 7,000 soldiers are on patrol.

The presidential poll is the first ever to be held while France is under a state of emergency, put in place since the November 2015 attacks in Paris left 130 people dead.

Voters are choosing between 11 presidential candidates in the most unpredictable contest in generations. The current president, Socialist Francois Hollande, is not among them, having decided that his historic unpopularity would hurt his party’s cause.

“We really need a change in this country, with all the difficulties we are facing and terrorism,” Paris resident Alain Richaud said as he waited to cast his vote.

“There have been surprises (this year), there have always been scandals,” said Le Touquet resident Pierre-Antoine Guilluy.

Opinion polls point to a tight race among the four leading contenders vying to advance to the May 7 presidential runoff, when the top two candidates will go head to head.

Polls suggest far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, an independent centrist and former economy minister, were in the lead. But conservative Francois Fillon, a former prime minister embroiled in a scandal over alleged fake jobs given to his wife and children, appeared to be closing the gap, as was far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.

The best chance for Le Pen is if Melenchon finishes second behind her. The problem with the two-round runoff system is that it essentially gives the mainstream two chances to keep out the populist riff-raff. But if it’s between the Front National and the far left, Le Pen should win relatively easily.

That doesn’t mean Le Pen can’t beat Macron or Fillon; Fillon was supposedly a sure thing only three months ago. But it would be more difficult and would probably require another incident of Muslim misbehavior or two to put her over the top.

UPDATE: It will be Macron vs Le Pen in the second round.