A voter casts her ballot at a polling station in Le Touquet, France for the second round of regional elections on June 27, 2021. Ludovic Marin/Pool via REUTERS
By Michel Rose
PARIS (Reuters) -France voted in run-offs for regional elections on Sunday that could give the far-right its first regional powerbase and shift the balance between political heavyweights vying for pole position in next year's presidential race.
Last Sunday's first round proved dire for President Emmanuel Macron, whose party is on course to win none of France's 13 regions, but was also disappointing for far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
A surprise factor of these elections has been the record abstention rate, which makes the contests particularly hard to predict for pollsters. On Sunday, only 27.89% of voters had turned out to vote by 5 pm (1500 GMT), down from 50.54% in 2015.
"I have no intention whatsoever to go and vote today, simply because I've lost faith in our politicians," Parisian Jean-Jacques told Reuters TV while strolling on one of the River Seine's bridges.
But others were galvanised by news of last Sunday's low turnout. "I didn't vote last week, but the abstention rate was a bit of a wake-up call, and so I decided to come and vote today instead of staying at home or going for a walk, because it is important," said 38-year old lawyer Masing Coulibaly.
In the first round, Le Pen's party fell short of poll predictions, coming top in just one region, Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur in the southeast.
Meanwhile, the traditional centre-right, decimated by Macron in the 2017 presidential and legislative elections, staged a surprise comeback.
A trio of its top members, all former ministers and currently at the helm of some of France's most populous regions, are running for re-election this Sunday, which they hope will give them a springboard for the 2022 presidential race.
In particular, Xavier Bertrand of the northern Hauts-de-France region around Calais has emerged as the conservatives' favourite in opinion polls to represent the party in the presidential election.
Macron's aides see the former health minister as a threat who could eat away at the president's centre-right voter base in the first round of the presidential vote in April.
Valerie Pecresse in the greater Paris region and Laurent Wauquiez in the greater Lyon area are the other conservatives whose fate on Sunday could decide whether they challenge Bertrand in 2022 for the centre-right ticket.
Le Pen's National Rally still hopes to win its first ever region in the southeast around Marseille and Nice. Her candidate, Thierry Mariani, a former conservative minister, beat the incumbent from the centre-right last Sunday, but by a lower margin than expected.
Victory would give Le Pen momentum and a platform to challenge Macron in 2022, a repeat of the 2017 duel that polls show would be won by Macron again, though by a slimmer margin.
Elsewhere, the Greens and leftwing allies are hoping to capture the Loire valley region, while a four-way contest in Burgundy gives an outside chance to the far-right to win power.