Under Sarkozy, France pledged to rein in its spending while the rest of 17 countries that use the euro embark on a strict period of belt-tightening. In France, that has included programs designed to reduce government employment.
Sarkozy, disliked by many voters for his handling of the economy and brash personality, promised he could produce a surprise victory on Sunday. Speaking on Europe-1 radio Friday, he said much will depend on whether French voters bother to cast ballots in an election that polls have always predicted Hollande would win.
Hollande was benefiting from anti-Sarkozy fervor, with some voters saying their choice was more a vote against him than one for Hollande.
"We've had enough of Sarkozy, the way he takes decisions without consulting anyone," said Stephane Thomas, after voting in Paris' 10th arrondissement.
In a sign of the attention the campaign has attracted, Google's home page in France was redesigned with one of its ever-changing "doodles" devoted to the election.
In Hollande's town of Tulle, residents who got up early to vote offered mixed messages about him. He has been a local official and lawmaker for years in the town and its surrounding Correze region.
"I don't know if he's capable of being president. I just don't know because here we just bump into him on the street. With us, he's like that," said Lydia Sobieniak, a former factory worker, outside the polling station where Hollande was voting shortly after it opened.