PARIS (AP) — French voters are choosing a new parliament Sunday that will determine how far Socialist President Francois Hollande can go with his push for economic stimulus in France and around a debt-burdened, stagnant Europe.
The left is in the spotlight and expected to take the driver's seat of the 577-seat National Assembly after Sunday's second round of legislative elections.
Hollande's Socialists dominated the first round last week and pollsters predict they will win the most seats in the lower house. That would wrench it from the hands of former President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservatives, who have led it for a decade.
The French election campaign focused on local issues but it will determine this country's political direction, which has Europe-wide importance. France is the second-biggest economy in the eurozone and, along with powerhouse Germany, contributes heavily to bailouts to weaker nations and often drives EU-wide policy.
Sunday's decisive second round election comes after a hasty new bailout for Spanish banks, and the same day as crucial voting in Greece. The Greek elections may determine whether the country stays in the euro, with repercussions for all the other 16 countries that use the joint currency.
After budget-tightening in France under Sarkozy that leftists warned would send France back into recession, Hollande is pushing for government-sponsored stimulus to encourage growth — and has met opposition from German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the two try to stem Europe's crisis.
Hollande's Socialist government has pledged to reduce the deficit, but markets are worried about higher spending when France's debts are so high.
Hollande, a moderate and mainstream leftist who is committed to European unity, is hoping to get an absolute majority of 289 seats for the Socialists to avoid having to make concessions to the Euro-skeptic far left.
Voting started at 8 a.m. (0600GMT) in mainland France and the final polls close in big cities at 8 p.m. (1800GMT). Polling agency projections of the results are expected soon afterward, and official results are expected late Sunday night.
Political and personal intrigue — and the resurgent far right — marked the legislative campaign. The anti-immigrant National Front, which wants to abandon the euro and stop immigration, is wrangling for its first real presence in parliament in more than a quarter century.
Sarkozy's conservative UMP party is struggling to hold onto seats, and many candidates are angling for far-right votes to defy polls and win, or assure a respectable presence in parliament.
National Front leader Marine Le Pen has revamped the party to try to shed its reputation as racist and anti-Semitic inherited under party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen. Daughter Marine placed a solid third in spring presidential elections and its candidates ranked third in last Sunday's first round of parliamentary voting.
But the French parliament system is such that the party is not expected to get more than three or four seats.
Any candidate who won support of more than 12.5 percent of registered voters in the first round advanced to Sunday's runoff, and many districts have three-way races.