PARIS (AP) _ The French voted Sunday for new city councils in elections marked by a record low turnout, slight progress for leftist parties and the surprising emergence of the ecologists.

The Socialists and Communists, who had squabbled for months over the formation of joint lists of candidates, lost some of their support to the greens, as the Ecologist Party is known.

The traditional right and center-right parties, the Rally for the Republic and Union for French Democracy, suffered in some areas at the hands of the extreme-right National Front.

Turnout was estimated at between 70-73.5 percent - the lowest for municipal elections since the end of World War II. Turnout in the last municipal elections in 1983 was 78.4 percent.

In municipalities where no list won an absolute majority a second round of voting will be held next Sunday. That balloting will include all lists that received at least 10 percent of the first vote.

With about 70 percent of the vote reported Sunday night, the ecologists, never previously a force in France, were expected to win between 4 and 5 percent of the vote nationally and more in some areas, such as 12.8 percent in Strasbourg and 14 percent in St. Brieuc.

In Lille in northern France, where the mayor is Pierre Mauroy, head of the nation's governing Socialist Party, the greens won 8.4 percent.

Antoine Waechter, head of the ecologists, said his party was ''demonstrating that they are a political force that is implanting itself here as they are in other European countries.

''Public opinion is becoming aware of the gravity of the ecological crisis and the absence of will by successive governments, no matter what their political color, to deal with it.''

Jean-Marie Le Pen, the National Front leader who won 14.4 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election last spring, praised what he called his party's ''remarkable success.''

''The National Front has created the only novelty of this election because in 1983 it counted only 0.11 percent of the vote ... today it could be credited with 7 percent on the national level,'' Le Pen said.

''When you take into account that we did not present candidates in all cities ... that's a remarkable success.''

Municipal elections generally are fought on local issues but the results can provide a sense of the national power of the parties. Few significant changes were noted in Sunday's voting.

Socialist Premier Michel Rocard said the vote confirmed ''the great choices that the president and the government have proposed to the country.''

Marcel Debarge, a national secretary of President Francois Mitterrand's Socialist Party, said there was ''an unspectacular gain by the left, a certain loss by the traditional right and a stronger than expected resistance by the National Front, which I regret.''

Charles Pasqua, a leading figure in the conservative Rally for the Republic, said his party would make no deals with the National Front in the runoff elections.Le Pen called that attitude ''the road to suicide.''

Voting took place in 36,757 communities.

In France's three largest cities, Paris, Marseille and Lyon, there appeared to be no big shakeups.

Conservative Mayor Jacques Chirac was in no danger of losing control of Paris, though it appeared he would not sweep all 20 of the city's districts as he did six years ago.

Warfare in Marseille between two Socialist lists, one official and the other unofficial, did not appear to benefit the right.

In Lyon, conservative former Trade Minister Michel Noir was virtually assured of ousting center-right Mayor Francisque Collomb.

Disgruntled with a Socialist-Communist government, the French used the 1983 municipal elections to protest, allowing the right to take over many city halls previously held by the left.

This time, with Mitterrand and Rocard still riding comfortably high in the popularity polls, there seemed to be less of a protest vote.

The Socialist and Communist parties agreed to run joint lists of candidates in only about 60 percent of towns with more than 20,000 residents. Conservative and centrist candidates shared a slate of candidates in about 95 percent of those towns.