PARIS (REUTERS) - French voters go to the polls on Sunday (June 20) in regional elections that will test the appeal of far-right leader Marine Le Pen's softened image less than a year before the next presidential election.
Coming after a gruelling year and a half of lockdowns, curfews and restrictions, Sunday's first round is likely to prove dire for President Emmanuel Macron, whose party is projected to win none of mainland France's 13 regions.
Boosted by a resurgence of law-and-order issues during the campaign, despite the fact French regions have no police powers, Ms Le Pen is hoping to capitalise on a rebrand that has seen her ditch promises of "Frexit" and inflammatory rhetoric.
"She appears less extreme in the eyes of the French, less dangerous for democracy, than she did a decade ago," analyst Brice Teinturier from pollster Ipsos told Reuters.
Her best chance is in the south of France, the region around Marseille and Nice, where one of her lieutenants, a former conservative minister, is projected by one opinion poll as winning the race even if all parties rally against him.
Gaining one region, for the first time ever, would give Ms Le Pen a major boost less than a year before presidential elections, and would be a slap in the face for President Macron, who has painted himself as a bulwark against the far-right.
The far-right is also likely to do well in two other regions, around Calais in the north and in Burgundy, helped by low turnout in a country whose attention is shifting to summer holidays to forget the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the de-industrialised north, the incumbent and frontrunner to become the conservatives' candidate in the presidential election, Mr Xavier Bertrand, is facing Ms Le Pen's party spokesman and Mr Macron's justice minister.
Whether Mr Macron's party reaches the 10 per cent threshold will determine if it can force Mr Bertrand into an alliance to defeat the far-right, which would undermine his pitch as Mr Macron's opponent-in-chief in 2022.
However, a win for Mr Bertrand would bolster his chances of becoming the conservatives' presidential candidate. Macron aides see the one-time health minister as a rival who would erode the president's centre-right voting base.
Results of Sunday's first round will send parties into frantic backroom dealing for two days to strike alliances ahead of the final round on June 27.