President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative party was bracing for a massive setback on Sunday as frustrated French voters cast ballots in regional run—off elections likely to favour the opposition left - and to set the stage for the 2012 presidential race.

Discouraged by Mr. Sarkozy’s handling of the stumbling economy, voters preferred the Socialists and like—minded parties in the first round of voting a week ago. Apathy played a central role in that round, with turnout at a record low in the first round, at 46 percent. By noon in Sunday’s runoff, turnout was about 19 percent, the Interior Ministry said.

Mr. Sarkozy’s UMP party, or Union for a Popular Majority, has ended up pleading with voters to go to the polls. In last week’s vote, the Socialist—led left won 53.5 percent of the votes while the UMP—led conservatives had 39.9 percent.

Even in a politically active, and generally left—leaning, neighbourhood in southeast Paris, one voting station stood empty for the first hour after polls opened on Sunday. Eventually Jeanne—Marie Debras appeared and cast her ballot for a far—left list, including Communist Party candidates.

“I hope this election will breathe new life into (the left),” the 62—year—old retired teacher said. “We have the impression that we have forgotten about our rights,” she said.

Voters like Debras are angry at Mr. Sarkozy’s reform efforts aimed at loosening up labour rules to make the economy more globally competitive. Hardcore facts of life like jobs, salaries, pensions and defeating the economic crisis are prime concerns to the French.

Even within Mr. Sarkozy’s party, some said voters were alienated by the president and his high—speed reforms.

Former Prime Minister Alain Juppe, said this week that Mr. Sarkozy must start “facing reality.”

“Reflection is now needed on the pace of reforms, the method in which they are launched and prepared ... how they can be better understood by public confused by the (economic) crisis,” he wrote on his blog.

The elections determine control of regional councils concerned with local issues. However, France’s regions are gaining increasing power as the country decentralizes, and they can help mobilize voters for the presidential race in 2012, when the Socialists are looking to make a comeback.

The left has drawn in voters angry over layoffs and worried pension reforms could shrink their old—age income.

The Socialists, long fractured, concluded a pact on Tuesday in all but a few regions with Europe Ecologie, an alliance of green parties, as well as the Front de Gauche, which includes France’s Communist Party.

It’s time “to give a good smack to the right,” Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry, said on Thursday.

The far—right National Front surprised pollsters with its first—round performance - about 12 percent. The party’s standard—bearers, longtime leader Jean-Marie Le Pen and daughter Marine, made clear that concerns over security, immigration and France’s large Muslim population remain alive.

France has 26 regions, 22 counting the mainland and Corsica, as well as four overseas, from the Caribbean to the Indian Ocean.

The governing conservatives went into the voting weak. The Socialists bulldozed their way across France in the last regional elections in 2004, leaving the right holding only two of the 22 regions - Alsace and Corsica.

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