|French President Nicolas Sarkozy (AFP file)|
PARIS, March 14, 2010 (AFP) - France started voting Sunday in regional polls forecast to punish President Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling party, the last ballot-box test of his popularity ahead of the 2012 general election.
Voters struggling with the aftershocks of the global slowdown are expected to severely punish the governing UMP party at the polls during the two-round vote on Sunday and March 21.
It is the first election held in France since a year-long recession sent unemployment soaring to its highest level in a decade, with nearly three million people now out of a job.
"I don't think the national government is really handling social welfare -- in terms of jobs for example," said Patricia Abela, a 41-year-old insurance worker, after voting for the Socialists at a near-deserted polling station in southwest Paris on Sunday morning.
Christine Eluard, a 47-year-old child minder, said she voted for the local members of Sarkozy's party but agreed that on the whole the elections were seen "rather more as a vote of censure" for the country's leaders.
Sarkozy is struggling with his lowest approval ratings since his 2007 election and commentators concur he no longer looks unbeatable in 2012.
"The balance of power is extremely favourable for the left," said Frederic Dabi, a director at the IFOP polling agency, who is predicting a major debacle for the UMP in the elections.
The Socialists currently control 20 of France's 22 regions on the mainland plus Corsica, along with the four councils in overseas territories.
Polls suggest the Socialists could even score what leader Martine Aubry has called "a grand slam" -- taking all 26 regions.
"It's clear that it's a regional election, but on March 21, we will already be taking that turn toward the presidential campaign," said Dabi.
Sarkozy's unpopularity has meant that he has stayed away from the campaign trail, leaving his Prime Minister Francois Fillon to show up at rallies to woo voters.
Pollsters are predicting a record low turnout, reflecting the voters' severe loss of faith in French politicians' ability to address the lingering pain from the 2008-2009 crisis.
In the lead-up to the vote, Sarkozy has sought to downplay the result and said there will be no major government reshuffle even if the 21 members of his cabinet who are on the ballot are defeated.
"Let's be clear. The vote on March 14 and 21 is a regional one. Its ramifications are therefore regional," Sarkozy told Le Figaro magazine on Friday.
The 55-year-old leader was elected on a mandate to rev up France's sluggish economy and bring unemployment down to five percent, but the worst recession since World War II has forced him to change tack.
Some 44 million voters are invited to choose 1,880 councilors from party lists to govern regions vested with powers to run transport, provide secondary education and oversee local economic development.
Last-minute polls showed the UMP tied with the Socialists (PS) with 30 percent of the vote each, but the Socialists will be able to tap into voters who backed parties eliminated in the first round of voting to win on March 21.
The far-right National Front led by Jean Marie Le Pen, who may be running in is his last election, is expected to win nearly 10 percent of the vote, according to a CSA poll published Friday.