PARIS (AP) — French voters are choosing lawmakers for the lower house of parliament Sunday, in a poll that will determine whether new President Francois Hollande's Socialists or rival conservatives control the government.
The elections, followed by runoffs a week later, will also affect whether Hollande can push his tax-the-rich, down-with-austerity agenda, and how much of a voice the far right will have in policies on immigration and Muslim practices.
Polls show the Socialists with a slight lead — but it's unclear whether they will get the solid majority Hollande needs to fulfill the promises he made to disgruntled voters during his recent election showdown with conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, whose conservative party currently dominates the lower house.
Marine Le Pen's anti-immigration National Front party, buoyed by her strong third-place showing in the spring presidential race, is also looking to build a presence in parliament for the first time since the 1980s. Her aims of undoing the euro currency, shrinking immigration, protecting "Frenchness" and fighting what she calls Islamization have won her fans among French voters who fear globalization, and among extreme right movements around Europe.
By late afternoon, voter turnout was 48.3 percent in mainland France, slightly lower than the 49 percent at the same time during the last elections for the lower house in 2007. But it was still a larger-than-expected showing, after a legislative race that has been quieter and less hostile than the presidential campaign that ended just a month ago, with Hollande's election May 6.
Most polling stations close at 1600 GMT (12:00 EDT), while those in Paris and other large cities close at 1800 GMT (2 p.m. EDT). The first results are expected shortly after the end of the voting.
The new lower house serves for the next five years, coinciding with Hollande's five-year term.
France's 46 million voters are choosing representatives for all 577 seats in the Assemblee Nationale representing mainland France and its overseas territories, from French Polynesia in the South Pacific to Guadeloupe in the Caribbean. For the first time this year, French expatriates living abroad have their own special voting districts.
The Socialists and their allies are hoping to get at least 289 seats for a majority. That would make France truly a land of the left: Already, Socialists hold the presidency, dominate the Senate, and lead nearly all of France's regions and a majority of local governments.
Candidates who win more than 50 percent in Sunday's first round win the seat outright. Many races go to a second round, involving any candidate who garners more than 12.5 percent of the registered voters in the first round.
The results of France's parliamentary elections could have repercussions beyond its borders, notably Hollande's push against German-championed austerity measures for indebted European governments. But voters casting ballots Sunday were focusing more on local issues.
Paris voter Liliane Richard said she was voting for "''my own ideas that I'm defending for daily life, for the youth. ... It's also very much about what's happening outside."
Some voters want to ensure that Hollande gets the majority he needs to roll back some of Sarkozy's reforms, such as cuts to teaching jobs and reductions in taxes for the very rich.
Other voters are worried about handing so much power to the left, which generally favors higher government spending, at a time when Europe is struggling with huge debts that have forced Greece, Ireland, Portugal and now Spain to seek international financial help.
Most of Hollande's Cabinet members — 25 of 34 — are running for parliament seats as well, and they could lose their jobs if they don't win election.
Running in some districts along with mainstream and extreme parties on right and left are fringe, barely heard-of formations. Among them is the Pirate Party, born in Sweden in 2005, which defends the "sharing of culture and information" and doing away with laws against illegal downloading and other barriers to open access.
This election is also seeing a push to get more women in parliament, after Hollande appointed women to half his Cabinet posts and to head his presidential security team. A 2000 law punishes political parties financially if they don't have enough female candidates, but many parties have preferred to take the monetary hit.
Cecile Brisson and Jeffrey Schaeffer in Paris contributed to this report.