French voters are expected to punish President Nicolas Sarkozy and his ruling conservative UMP party in the first round of regional elections.
It is a grim and chilly Sunday, but Christophe Sanchez has shown up, his toddlers in tow, at the town hall of Neuilly-sur-Marne to cast his ballot for the regional elections. Sanchez says he is not affiliated with any particular party, but he thinks this time around he will vote for the conservatives.
That is good news for President Nicolas Sarkozy and his center-right UMP party. Many analysts predict the UMP will face a drubbing in the elections, and that the left, a hodge-podge of parties from the leading opposition Socialists to the tiny French Communist Party, could sweep the elections. The left hopes to score a so-called "grand slam", sweeping all 26 regions of France.
At Neuilly-sur-Marne, retiree Chantal Futtersack says she voted for the Socialist Party. She does not think much of Mr. Sarkozy's record as president.
"I think he is on the [conservative] side, so he is on the side of money and as there are many people who [lost] their work and a lot of poor people, I do not think he is on the side of the poor," she said.
Mr. Sarkozy says the vote is purely about regional issues. But analysts say the regional elections are also a barometer for the president's prospects for a second mandate in 2012.
Mr. Sarkozy's ratings have plummeted over a series of perceived missteps and in an overall climate of high unemployment and economic hardship. If the UMP is walloped in the polls and Mr. Sarkozy continues to be hobbled by low popularity ratings, there is an outside chance UMP leaders might pick someone besides Mr. Sarkozy to run for president.
But high abstention rates may prove the biggest winner in these regional elections. Analysts say up to 50 percent or more of French voters may stay at home, and next Sunday, when the second and final round of regional elections takes place.