French voters went to the polls Sunday in the first round of a presidential election that many expect President Nicolas Sarkozy to lose, the first incumbent to be voted out in 31 years.

The Interior Ministry said early turnout figures showed an impressive 70.6 percent of France's 44-million-plus voters cast ballots by 5 p.m. local time, the Associated Press reported -- less than the 73.8 percent in 2007 at the same time, but more than in the four previous races. Overall turnout in the 2007 first round was nearly 84 percent, the highest figure since the 1970s.

Most opinion polls predicted a victory for Socialist Francois Hollande, who would become only France's second left-wing leader since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958, and its first since Francois Mitterrand, who beat incumbent Valery Giscard-d'Estaing in 1981.

In a fervent appeal hours before the first round of election, Sarkozy maintained France will be in danger in the hands of Hollande. He said: "If I've decided to fight, it's not for me, it's for you, it's for your country," reported the Financial Times.

Hollande voted early Sunday in Tulle, a town in central France where he serves as the head of local government for the surrounding rural Correze region, Reuters reported.

"Here's hoping," he whispered in the ear of an old lady. His partner, journalist Valerie Trierweiler, admitted to hordes of journalists she was "super-stressed."

Sarkozy and his somberly dressed ex-supermodel wife Carla Bruni voted in the affluent west-of-Paris suburb of Neuilly, shaking hands with bystanders but leaving without comment.

Morning sunshine, which could boost turnout at the margins, was forecast to give way to clouds and rain later.

Pushed to the wall by the euro zone crisis and a high unemployment rate, Sarkozy is facing a tough challenge from Hollande.

The promises given by the 57-year old Hollande such as less drastic cuts and higher taxes on the rich seem to have gone down well with the voters since many opinion polls give him a comfortable lead against Sarkozy.

"I want to put the magic back in the French dream," was a frequent campaign line of Hollande, who has a more down-to-earth image than the showy Sarkozy.

Investors will be watching the first round to see how well radical leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon performs. Melenchon, who wants an anti-capitalist revolution, has channeled outrage at the poor economy to become a popular figure on the campaign trail, neck-in-neck with far right leader Marine Le Pen for third place.

On Friday, the risk premium investors charge to hold French debt over safe-haven German bonds rose to nearly 1.50 percent, betraying fears that Hollande's program could be pulled to the left if Melenchon's popularity leads to a strong bloc of seats for the far left after parliamentary elections in June.

Sarkozy has proven to be a more vigorous campaigner than Hollande, whose sober style, for some, lacks panache.

The president's verve at the podium combined with his handling of a shooting drama in southwest France in March saw him claw back some ground in opinion polls last month. But he has since slipped back, leaving Hollande 10 or more points ahead in surveys for the deciding runoff.

There are 10 presidential candidates in the fray and if none of them gets more than 50 per cent of the vote, there will be a run-off on May 6.

Polling opened at 8 a.m. local time and closes at 6 p.m. and the first set of results is likely to be announced a couple of hours after the voting.

Voting started Saturday in France's overseas territories like French Guyana, Guadeloupe and Martinique.

The election campaign which has been on for several months now has already witnessed bitter exchanges between Sarkozy and Hollande.

Here is the full list of all the presidential candidates and the parties they represent:

Nicolas Sarkozy - Union for a Popular Movement

Francois Hollande - Socialist Party

Marine Le Pen - National Front

Jean-Luc Melenchon - Le Front Fort (The Left Front)

Francois Bayrou - MODem (Democratic Movement)

Eva Joly -- Les Verts (The Greens)

Nicolas Dupont-Aignan - Arise the Republic

Nathalie Arthaud - Worker's Struggle

Philippe Poutou - New Anti-Capitalist Party

Jacques Cheminade - Solidarity and Progress

Below, some scenes during the polling.

Passing the secret
"Passing the secret"- Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of France's Parti de Gauche political party and the Front de Gauche political party's candidate for the 2012 French presidential election, waits to vote in the first round of the 2012 French presidential election in Paris - Reuters
Le Pen
Le Pen, National Front Party Candidate for the 2012 French presidential election, leaves voting booth after casting her ballot at a polling station in Henin-Beaumont - Reuters
Valerie Trierweiler
Valerie Trierweiler, companion of Francois Hollande, Socialist Party candidate for the 2012 French presidential election, is seen at the polling station in the first round of 2012 French presidential election inTulle - Reuters
Nicolas Sarkozy
France's President and UMP party candidate for the 2012 French presidential elections Sarkozy arrives with France's first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy at a polling station to vote during the first round of 2012 French presidential election in Paris - Reuters
Francois Hollande
"Man of the moment" - Francois Hollande, Socialist Party candidate for the 2012 French presidential election, exits the voting booth before casting his ballot in the first round vote of the 2012 French presidential election in Tulle - Reuters
Francois Hollande
"The curtain raiser" -Francois Hollande, Socialist Party candidate for the 2012 French presidential election, exits the voting booth before casting his ballot in the first round vote of the 2012 French presidential election in Tulle - Reuters
Francois Hollande
Francois Hollande, Socialist Party candidate for the 2012 French presidential election, exits the voting booth before casting his ballot in the first round vote of the 2012 French presidential election in Tulle - Reuters
President Nicolas Sarkozy casts his ballot during the first round of the French presidential election at a polling station in Paris on Saturday.Reuters/Pool
Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande fighting it out.Reuters
"Passing the secret"- Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of France's Parti de Gauche political party and the Front de Gauche political party's candidate for the 2012 French presidential election, waits to vote in the first round of the 2012 French presidential election in Paris
Le Pen, National Front Party Candidate for the 2012 French presidential election, leaves voting booth after casting her ballot at a polling station in Henin-Beaumont
François Hollande officially takes office as France’s president at a ceremony in Paris this week.Reuters
France's President and UMP party candidate for the 2012 French presidential elections Sarkozy arrives with France's first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy at a polling station to vote during the first round of 2012 French presidential election in Paris