PARIS (AP) -- Marine Le Pen's far-right party is riding high on her tough-on-security, stop-immigration message as French voters started choosing regional leaders Sunday in an election that many see as a dress rehearsal for next year's presidential vote.
President Emmanuel Macron's young centrist party is expected to fare poorly in Sunday's first-round of regional elections, lacking a strong local political base and suffering from frustration at his government's handling of the pandemic.
Many polling stations stood largely empty as voting kicked off in schools and community centers from Marseille on the Mediterranean coast to Le Touquet on the English Channel. Turnout was lower than usual at midday, at just 12% nationwide. Those who did show up to vote must stay masked and socially distanced and carry their own pens to sign voting registries.
The elections for leadership councils of France's 13 regions, from Brittany to Burgundy to the French Riviera, are primarily about local issues like transportation, schools and infrastructure. But politicians are using them as a platform to test ideas and win followers ahead of the April 2022 presidential election, a contest that Le Pen and Macron are expected to dominate.
That has frustrated voters like Patrice Grignoux, a 62-year-old tech consultant casting his ballot in Paris.
"The presidential election is a world in itself," he told The Associated Press. "When you take Brittany or the Paris region, it's totally different. The north is also completely different. ... There are issues you find at a regional level but have nothing to do with national issues."
Parties that win more than 10% of the votes in Sunday's first-round regional voting advance to the decisive runoff on June 27.
Polls suggest that Le Pen's National Rally party may win control of one or more regions, which would be a big boost for her decade-long effort to legitimize a party long seen as an anti-democratic, anti-Semitic pariah. A major question for the runoff is whether French voters will still band together to keep the party out of power as they have in the past.
France's traditional conservative party, The Republicans, looks set to keep control of several of the seven regions it currently runs, including the all-important Paris area.
Among the strongest National Rally candidates is Thierry Mariani, running to lead the region that includes Provence, the French Riviera and part of the Alps. Mariani has said he wants more police and no more public funding for groups promoting individual communities, which many see as targeting Muslim associations or LGBTQ movements.
The National Rally has racked up political victories in local elections in recent years, and has made security a top issue in this campaign. Its candidates have rallied around police unions who say they're facing spiking violence, and called for tougher prison sentences and a moratorium on immigration -- even though these fall within the powers of the national government and not the regional councils.
France's Greens party, which has surged in recent elections, is hoping to gain new influence in the regional vote, while the Socialist Party may further lose ground.
Prospects look shaky for Macron's centrist Republic on the Move party, which is just four years old and so didn't exist the last time voters chose regional leaders in 2015. It's facing disillusionment with Macron's policies, including from rural voters who supported the yellow vest uprising against perceived economic injustice.
The regional elections were delayed as the virus surged.
As infections have ebbed and vaccinations spread, the French government recently reopened long-shuttered restaurants, shops and travel possibilities. The prime minister scrapped an unpopular curfew starting Sunday -- just in time for the election.