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A person casts a ballot at a polling station during the first round of French regional and departmental elections, in Le Touquet-Paris-Plage, northern France, June 20, 2021.

CHRISTIAN HARTMANN/The Associated Press

France’s traditional conservative party dominated the first round of regional elections Sunday and Marine Le Pen’s far-right party performed less well than expected, according to polling agency projections.

The election Sunday was marked by exceptionally low turnout, at less than 34%, and campaigning focused on security and economic issues. The regional elections are meant to be about local issues but were seen by many as a dress rehearsal for next year’s presidential election.

Three polling agencies projected that traditional conservative party, The Republicans, would have the most overall votes, about 26-28% support. They were followed in the projections by Le Pen’s far-right National Rally, which had been riding high in recent weeks on her tough-on-security, stop-immigration message.

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Behind them were the long-struggling Socialist Party and its left-wing allies, Green parties and President Emmanuel Macron’s young centrist Republic on the Move party. Macron’s movement had been forecast to fare poorly, lacking a strong local political base and suffering from frustration at his government’s handling of the pandemic.

Parties that win more than 10% of the vote advance to the decisive second round on June 27. A major question for the runoff is whether French voters will still band together to keep Le Pen’s party out of power as they have in the past.

Many polling stations stood largely empty as voting kicked off in schools and community centres from Marseille on the Mediterranean coast to Le Touquet on the English Channel. 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.”

Le Pen’s National Rally hopes to win control of a region to boost her decade-long effort to legitimize a party long seen as an anti-democratic, anti-Semitic pariah.

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The Republicans look set to keep control of several of the seven regions it currently runs, including the all-important Paris area.

National Rally candidate Thierry Mariani was 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.

Macron’s 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. Beginning Sunday, the prime minister scrapped an unpopular overnight coronavirus curfew, just in time for the election.

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