By Brian Love
PARIS (Reuters) - The French voted on Sunday in a second round of local elections that have caused alarm and disarray in President Nicolas Sarkozy's party after the far-right National Front surged in first-round voting.
The polls served to gauge the national mood a year before a presidential election and will determine whether the anti-immigrant National Front gains a foothold in a handful of local councils -- levers of grassroots political power.
Sarkozy's UMP party has blurred the lines with the far right by taking a tough line on the integration of France's large Muslim minority.
But the president's popularity ratings have sunk to record lows because of resentment over his austerity policies to rein in France's debt.
At 5 p.m. (1500 GMT) on Sunday, Interior Ministry figures showed a turnout of 36.2 percent, slightly down from the 36.4 percent seen at the same time in the first round.
Most polling stations were to close at 6 p.m. and the rest two hours later, at which point results will start to emerge.
In the first round last Sunday, the Socialist Party fared best with 25 percent of votes, followed by the UMP with 17 percent and the National Front close behind with 15 percent, a record for the party.
NATIONAL FRONT CHALLENGE
Those results came hot on the heels of opinion polls indicating that Marine Le Pen, a tough-talking 42-year-old lawyer who took over as National Front chief from her former paratrooper father in January, could score more than Sarkozy in the opening round of a presidential contest.
Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked France and the world when he made it to the second round of the presidential election in 2002.
The party has a fresher face but is struggling to cast off an extremist image -- it announced the expulsion on Saturday of one of its local election candidates after a magazine website published a photograph of him doing a Nazi salute.
More than 21 million people were eligible to vote in the local elections but only 9.5 million did so in round one.
That pushed the abstention rate to a record 56 percent in what were the last direct elections before presidential and legislative showdowns in the second quarter of 2012.
The Ipsos Logica polling institute estimated Sunday's abstention rate would be 56 percent as well.
French local councils take care of everyday matters such as building of roads and schools as well as distribution of various welfare subsidies. This election concerned 2,026 council seats in all, with 1,566 still up for grabs after the first round.
Because the voting system favors alliances and the larger parties, the National Front was unlikely to win scores of seats but it hoped to capture some to prove it is no longer seen solely as a pariah party that picks up protest votes.
The opposition Socialist Party, which was expected to extend its domination of local political power, urged its supporters to vote for Sarkozy's conservatives if it came down to that to shut out National Front candidates.
Sarkozy's UMP urged right-wingers to shun the National Front but not necessarily by voting Socialist.
Among candidates of note in Sunday's showdown were Marine Le Pen's partner, Louis Aliot, and Anne-Christine Royal, cousin of Socialist Segolene Royal, who lost the presidential election contest of 2007 to Nicolas Sarkozy.
(Additional reporting by Lionel Laurent; editing by Mark Heinrich)