PARIS (AFP) - France's ruling party is expected on Sunday (June 28) to be handed a stinging rebuke by voters in the final round of local elections, the first big political test for President Emmanuel Macron since the coronavirus crisis began to ease.
The first round controversially went ahead on March 15 just as the epidemic was gaining deadly momentum but the second phase scheduled for March 22 was put off to June 28 after France went into lockdown.
Analysts are expecting the election will underline the failure of Macron's centrist Republic on the Move (LREM) party - founded by the President ahead of his 2017 election win - to gain a strong foothold at a local level.
Socialist mayor Anne Hidalgo is predicted to hold on to the key battleground of Paris, with LREM candidate and former health minister Agnes Buzyn well behind after Macron's original choice pulled out in a sexting scandal.
With a death toll fast approaching 30,000, France has been badly hit by the coronavirus pandemic. While most restrictions have now been eased, there is widespread anger at the government over shortages of protective equipment in the early stages of the pandemic.
Paris is now buzzing with speculation that if a poor showing by the LREM is confirmed, Macron will take the chance to announce a major Cabinet reshuffle.
This could include the post of prime minister. Incumbent Edouard Philippe, in an oddity of French politics, is also campaigning to be mayor of the Normandy port city of Le Havre.
During the pandemic, the popularity of Philippe, a technocratic and unshowy figure, has risen to a level much higher than that of the President's low ratings, raising speculation Macron may prefer to see him work full time in his Norman fiefdom.
A poll by Harris Interactive Epoka published on Friday showed that 44 per cent of respondents had a favourable opinion of Macron but 51 per cent were positive on Philippe, a jump of 13 points for the Premier since the start of the epidemic.
"There will not be any significant conquests for LREM," said Emmanuel Riviere, a pollster who is president of the Kantar Centre on the Future of Europe.
"This will deprive the ruling party of a territorial anchor that it could have depended on in future elections," he said.
GREENS, LEFT SEEK SUCCESS
France's next presidential poll will be in 2022 where analysts expect the main challenger for Macron to be far-right leader Marine Le Pen of the National Rally (RN) party.
Despite their abysmal performance in the last presidential elections, the Socialists are expected to keep key regional centres.
There will also be close attention on performance of the green Europe Ecology - The Greens (EELV) party which as well as seeking to keep the Alpine hub of Grenoble also has its eyes on taking Strasbourg and Lyon.
In Marseille, left-wing candidate Michele Rubirola wants to cause a major sensation by taking France's second city from the right after a quarter of a century of control.
For Le Pen's RN, the big prize would be taking the southeastern city of Perpignan, which would be the first time the far-right takes a city of more than 100,000 inhabitants since Toulon in 1995.
Over three months after the first round, the vote will take place in 4,820 districts where municipal councils were not elected outright in the previous poll.
The only region of France where the vote is not taking place is the overseas territory of Guiana in South America, where the pandemic is still deemed too dangerous to proceed with the vote.
With social distancing rules still in place across France, the campaign for the second round has been inevitably low key and a major question will be if the turnout is an improvement on the dismal 44.3 per cent recorded in the first round.
Wearing a mask will also be obligatory for the 16.5 million people eligible to cast a vote in this round, with polling stations due to open from 0600 GMT (2pm Singapore time).