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Sarkozy prepares for rebuke at the polls

France's regional elections expected to deal blow to president's UMP.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, accompanied by first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, shakes hands with supporters after casting his vote at a Paris polling station for the French regional elections on March 14, 2010. Pollster TNS-Sofres gave the opposition Socialists 30 percent of the vote against 26.7 percent for Sarkozy's right-wing UMP party. (Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images)

PARIS, France — If the polls and pundits are correct, a second round of regional elections on March 21 could leave President Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling party wallowing in defeat and the opposition Socialists basking in the glow of a “grand-slam” victory — an outcome that would augur badly for a possible re-election bid by Sarkozy in 2012.

The president has already tried to downplay the expected outcome by implying that he has no intention of playing the sort of ministerial musical chairs that was on display after previous defeats at the polls. Regional elections equal regional consequences, Sarkozy said in an interview with the magazine Le Figaro three days before polls opened.

For two Sundays in a row starting today, millions of voters will elect officials to some 1,880 seats in mainland France’s 22 regions and in four of its overseas territories. No matter the outcome, the governing party will remain in power. But at the regional level, where councils influence budgets and make decisions with direct impact on people’s lives, such as about education and transportation, the Socialists could end up controlling all 26 regions. During the last regional elections in 2004, the Socialists won 20 of the 22 regions on the mainland.

 Elegantly dressed in a long red smock coat and pushing her toddler grandchildren in a tandem stroller, Marie-Claude Richet said she has always voted and was doing so this time so the Ile-de-France region would stay to the left. Another reason, she said, was “to try to get rid of Sarkozy.”

 The 67-year-old retired banker who cast her ballot in southeast Paris said she would like to see some intelligence return to politics and for “citizens to take back the society that is being destroyed.” The government has squandered the country’s riches, she said, stressing that as a former banker she was well positioned to know what she is talking about. “It’s a waking nightmare.”

 Similar perhaps to a midterm election in the United States, France's regional elections in two rounds allow citizens to take a critical look at the ruling party’s performance. It can be regarded as a way to scrutinize the country’s leadership over pressing concerns like job creation and pension reform, security and the environment. At least 20 cabinet members from Sarkozy’s UMP party are on the ballot and hoping to prove the pundits wrong.