Exit polls showed the opposition left taking 40 percent of the vote in the first round of France's regional elections Sunday, with a six percentage point lead over the governing conservatives.

The extreme right, which could play the spoiler's role in next Sunday's second round, took 17 percent but was not expected to win in any of France's 26 regions.

The exit polls showed candidates of President Jacques Chirac's (search) conservatives lagging with 34 percent.

The regional elections were widely viewed as a national test of Chirac's governing right, and the estimates appeared to confirm predictions that it could be punished for France's economic and social woes.

In a personal blow to Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin (search), his hand-picked candidate in his home region of Poitou-Charentes, in western France, was headed for a beating from the high-profile Socialist candidate.

Raffarin's candidate, Elisabeth Morin (search), had 34.3 percent of the vote, compared to 46.5 percent for the high-profile Socialist candidate Segolene Royal, a former minister, according to an exit poll by the CSA firm.

Raffarin headed the region from 1988 until 2002 when he was chosen prime minister.

The elections were the first since Chirac's 2002 presidential victory over extreme-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. That win was assured by an unprecedented joining of political ranks behind Chirac. With no national balloting before the president's term expires in 2007, the regionals gained stature, and special impact.

Still, Raffarin tried to minimize the elections in which 19 of the government's 38 ministers were running.

Voters were choosing among 17,658 candidates running for hundreds of council seats in 26 regions — four of them overseas. Half of the representatives of tiny cantons also were being renewed. First lady Bernadette Chirac was seeking her fifth term as head of the couple's home canton, Saran, in central France.

The CSA firm estimated the abstention rate at 39.8 percent — below the record 42 percent in regional elections six years ago.