France voted Sunday in regional polls forecast to punish Nicolas Sarkozy\'s governing party in the last ballot-box test of his popularity ahead of the 2012 presidential election.
Voters still reeling from the global economic slowdown were expected to give the president\'s right-wing UMP party a beating in the two-round vote on Sunday and March 21, though turnout was headed for a record low.
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 tackling social welfare -- in terms of jobs for example," said Patricia Abela, a 41-year-old insurance worker, after voting for the opposition Socialists in southwest Paris.
Christine Eluard, a 47-year-old child minder, said she cast her ballot for the local candidates of Sarkozy\'s party but judged that on the whole the elections were seen "rather more as a vote of censure" for France\'s leaders.
Sarkozy is struggling with the lowest approval ratings since his 2007 election and commentators agree 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, predicting a heavy defeat for the UMP.
"It\'s a regional election, but on March 21, we will already be taking that turn toward the presidential campaign."
The Socialists already control 20 of the 22 French regions spread across the mainland and Corsica, along with the four councils in overseas territories.
Polls suggest they could even score what their leader Martine Aubry has called "a grand slam" -- taking all 26 regions.
Some 44 million voters are invited to choose 1,880 councillors from party lists to control budgets for regional transport, secondary education and local economic development.
Turnout was weak, however, in line with pollsters\' predictions -- reflecting a loss of faith in French politicians\' ability to ease the pain from the 2008-2009 crisis.
The interior ministry said that overall turnout was just under 40 percent at 1600 GMT as voting at most stations neared a close -- 10 points lower than during the last regional elections in 2004.
Sarkozy sought to downplay the likely result and said there will be no major government reshuffle even if the 20 members of his cabinet who are on the ballot are defeated.
"The vote on March 14 and 21 is a regional one. Its ramifications are therefore regional," he told Le Figaro magazine on Friday.
"But that doesn\'t mean I mustn\'t listen to the French people. I will of course pay attention to what they say."
The 55-year-old leader was elected on a mandate to boost France\'s sluggish economy and bring unemployment down to five percent, but the worst recession since World War II has driven it up to double figures.
Social tensions are also being felt. The government\'s public debate on "national identity" has raised racial sensitivities and been widely slammed as a divisive project that stigmatises immigrants.
Meanwhile the far-right National Front led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, who at the age of 81 may be running in his last election, is expected to win nearly 10 percent of the vote, according to a CSA poll published Friday.
Isabelle Suet, 29, an events manager in Paris, told AFP she was driven to vote partly by local transport and environmental concerns but also "social considerations, like how to integrate different communities."
Polls gave the UMP and the Socialists around 30 percent each of the first-round vote, but on March 21 the Socialists are likely to pick up support from those who backed parties eliminated on Sunday -- notably from the green group Europe Ecologie.
All polling stations were due to be closed on Sunday by 8:00 pm (1900 GMT).
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