Polling stations have opened in France for the second round of regional elections on Sunday. The traditional right-wing party and the Socialists have made some gains so far, while President Emmanuel Macron's ruling centrist party is lagging behind. But the real challenge for the parties is abstention.
France's 13 mainland regions from Brittany in the northwest to the (PACA) region in the southeast are going to the polls again, but the key concern is turnout, after a 66 percent abstention rate in the first round.
"What we are seeing is the culmination of a disconnection between voters and the political class," said Jessica Sainty, politics lecturer at Avignon University, while acknowledging the Covid-19 crisis also played a role in high abstention rate.
The low turnout has prompted a debate over how to improve participation, with several figures including government spokesman Gabriel Attal suggesting electronic voting could help in future.
According to a poll published Thursday, just 36 percent of voters plan to cast their ballots on Sunday. "France is sulking," the Le Parisien newspaper said.
Far-right gains less than expected
The first-round results marked a boost for the traditional right-wing The Republicans as well as the Socialist Party, which is expecting to pick up some regions, partly due to support from the far-left France Unbowed party.
Marine Le Pen's far-right National Rally (RN) only came out ahead in the southeastern Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur (PACA) region, a major disappointment after polls showed a possible breakthrough in several areas.
One of the most closely watched races on Sunday will be whether RN candidate Thierry Mariani can defeat his right-wing rival Renaud Muselier in the region.
Gaining control here for the first time would be a huge boost for Le Pen as she seeks to convince voters that the RN -- which she has reformed and rebranded since taking over from her firebrand father Jean-Marie -- is a serious party of power.
Muselier could be helped by the withdrawal of left-wing candidates in a repeat of the "Republican Front" seen in past presidential elections to block the far-right.
Mariani has been accused by critics of being an admirer of authoritarians like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. Prime Minister Jean Castex warned last week that a Mariani victory would be "very serious" for the country.
Conservatives not shaken
The RN also came up short in the Ile-de-France region that includes Paris, where its 25-year-old rising star Jordan Bardella failed to trouble right-wing incumbent Valerie Pecresse, who is now expected to easily win the second round.
Meanwhile, despite sending several ministers to campaign and Macron himself embarking on a nationwide tour -- that saw him slapped by an onlooker at one point -- in some regions LREM did not muster the required 10 percent to make round two.
LREM has almost no chance of winning control of a single region and is currently just number five among political parties in France.
Analysts says that although LREM lacks a local presence, this did not prevent them from winning presidential and legislative elections in 2017.
Voting began at 8:00 am (0600 GMT) on Sunday, with the last polling stations due to close 12 hours later.