PARIS - France voted Sunday in parliamentary elections tipped to give Socialist President Francois Hollande the majority he needs to push through his anti-austerity, tax-and-spend programme.
Final opinion polls before Sunday's first-round vote - with round two due in a week - suggested the Socialists would, with their Green and hard-left allies, emerge with a narrow but workable majority. That would boost Hollande's status in Europe as champion of the movement away from the German-led fixation on austerity and towards promoting growth as the solution to the continent's lingering economic crisis.
The vote is also a litmus test for Marine Le Pen's National Front, which wants to ditch the euro and battles against the "Islamisation" of France. Le Pen scored 18 percent in the first round of the presidential vote.
As polls indicated that 40 percent of election-weary voters might not bother to cast their ballot, the president appealed to electors to exercise their democratic right. "I will only be able to bring about change, the change that the French have asked me to bring about, if I have a majority in the National Assembly," he said Thursday during a visit to the northern town of Dieudonne.
By 1500 GMT, voter turnout stood at 48 percent, one percentage point down on the same time at the last parliamentary ballots in 2007. The IFOP opinion poll agency predicted a final turnout of 60 percent, as it was in 2007.
After taking 51.6 percent of the vote in the May 6 presidential run-off, Hollande moved quickly to give the Socialists, who already control the upper house of parliament, an edge in the parliamentary elections.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault's interim government has taken a series of popular steps, cutting ministers' salaries by 30 percent, vowing to reduce executive pay at state-owned firms and lowering the retirement age from 62 to 60 for some workers.
But Sarkozy's right-wing Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party has hit back with warnings that the Socialists are preparing huge tax hikes to pay for what the right says is a fiscally irresponsible spending programme.
UMP leader Jean-Francois Cope said the Socialists were readying "the biggest-ever tightening of the screws on the middle class", while ex-premier Francois Fillon said the party would "massively boost taxes" with a majority.
The economic backdrop is bleak for whoever wins the parliamentary vote, with unemployment at 10 percent, stalled growth, and a resurgent eurozone crisis.
But analysts say it is unlikely Hollande, who voted Sunday in the central town of Tulle where he built his political career, will be forced into what the French call "cohabitation" by a right-wing win in the parliamentary vote.
A BVA poll on Friday gave core left-wing parties 32.5 percent; 36.5 percent if they ally with the Greens; and 44.5 percent if the hard left Left Front gets on board. The mainstream right scored 33.5 percent in the same opinion poll.
More than 6,500 candidates are competing in the vote, which takes place over two rounds under a constituency-based simple majority system.
If no candidate wins more than 50 percent in the first round, any contender who scores more than 12.5 percent of the vote stays in the race for the second round.
Observers will also be keeping an eye on the National Front.
Although the party has not won a seat in parliament since 1986, Le Pen is seeking to build on her strong showing in the presidential vote and cement her party's place in national politics.
She faces a personal challenge from the Left Front's Jean-Luc Melenchon, who won 11 percent in the presidential vote. He has chosen to battle Le Pen head-on in Henin-Beaumont, a rundown former mining constituency near the northern city of Lille.
Some 64,000 polling stations opened at 8:00 am (0600 GMT) on Sunday and were to close at 6:00 pm (1600 GMT) in most municipalities, and 8:00 pm (1800 GMT) in large cities.