France's incumbent President and right-wing ruling party Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) candidate for the French 2012 presidential election Nicolas Sarkozy (C) casts his vote next to his wife Carla Bruni Sarkozy (L) at a polling station on May 6, 2012 in Paris, as part of the 2012 French presidential election second round vote. AFP PHOTO POOL / MICHEL EULER

Paris - Grey skies and scattered downpours failed to deter grimly determined French voters on Sunday, as a nation voted for a leader to shelter them from a chill wind of austerity and economic globalisation.

France is a pessimistic place - three-quarters of voters were unhappy with their country's direction in the last poll by the Pew Global Attitudes Project - and the presidential campaign has done little to lighten the mood.

But France is also a highly political country and turnout was high after the hard-fought election campaign polarised voters into rival camps.

While Socialist challenger Francois Hollande made hope and change a theme of his speeches, both he and the right-wing incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy spent more time vowing to protect voters than seeking to inspire them.

“Sarkozy's an idiot. Hollande's an idiot. I voted for the least worst,” shrugged 33-year-old civil servant Aurelie Briandet, without saying which one she had backed. “I have no hope for this vote. Nothing will change.”

France's unemployment rate is 10 percent and rising and the growth rate is low. In eastern Paris' working-class and solidly Socialist 20th arrondissement most voters said they were backing Hollande as the man to get things on track.

“I want more justice, more fairness. There are great social disparities. We need a turnaround,” said Veronique Chiloux, a 47-year-old actress who was one of a steady stream of voters at a polling station in a state nursery school.

Even in Neuilly, the plush western suburb where Sarkozy cut his political teeth as mayor and which has since served as his conservative fiefdom, the right-wing voters could scarcely muster more enthusiasm than their leftist rivals.

“I've always voted the same,” shrugged 79-year-old Francois Lissoni, in a town where the incumbent won a massive 72 percent in the first round.

“It's been clear from the start,” said Neuilly resident Yvan Le Muet, 52, who said he had “voted against the worst” after what he thought was a campaign without fresh ideas and with both candidates on the defensive.

Despite the cynicism, voters turned out in numbers and turnout was expected to be as high as 80 percent of the 46 million-strong electorate. Opinion polls in the past six months have suggested voters prefer Hollande, if only to oust the unpopular Sarkozy.

Neither frontrunner polled well in the first round on April 22, when a strong showing by far-right anti-immigrant candidate Marine Le Pen revealed fears over France's declining influence and relative economic strength.

Sarkozy insisted on the stump he was the man to defend a strong France with secure frontiers against the perils of the world outside, while Hollande vowed to defend France's social protections against EU-imposed austerity.

In the east of the capital Severin Seaman, a 52-year-old originally from France's Caribbean overseas territory of Guadeloupe, agreed. “We need a change. Things are difficult for people, especially for the workers.”

Some dissatisfied left-wing voters were tempted to vote for the far-left solutions of Jean-Luc Melenchon of the Communist-backed Left Front in the first round - briefly enthused by his vision of a “citizens' revolution”.

But the campaign fizzled, leaving Melenchon far behind both frontrunners and Le Pen. He and his supporters grudgingly transferred their votes, but not their former fervour, to the centre-left Hollande.

“You know the rule. In the first round you choose, in the second you eliminate. I went to eliminate,” said Melenchon after voting in the 10th district, implying he had voted against Sarkozy rather than for Hollande.

Asked whether he would turn out later in the day to celebrate the expected Hollande victory rally in the Place de la Bastille -

one of the squares where also Left Front held a major campaign event - Melenchon shrugged.

“I don't think so,” he said. - Sapa-AFP