French regional elections deal a blow to Marine Le Pen's far-right party

President Emmanuel Macron's party also struggles amid low turnout in first round

French far-right Rassemblement National (RN) party's leader and member of parliament Marine Le Pen (R) gives a press conference during a support visit to RN top candidate in Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur (PACA) for the upcoming regional elections as part of the campaign in Toulon, southern France, on June 17, 2021.  / AFP / Christophe SIMON
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France's far right suffered a setback on Sunday in regional elections seen as a test of the national mood before the 2022 presidential race.

Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party won fewer votes than expected in the first round and failed to gain a clear advantage in key regions.

“Our voters didn’t turn out,” said Ms Le Pen, who is expected to challenge President Emmanuel Macron in 2022. “I call on them to respond urgently.”

Another Macron challenger, Xavier Bertrand from the centre-right Republicans, celebrated a clear first-round victory over National Rally in northern France.

“We've unlocked the jaws of the National Front in order to smash them here,” Mr Bertrand said, referring to the party by its former name.

The second round will take place next Sunday and typically sees tactical voting to keep the far right out of power.

Ms Le Pen’s party had been tipped to take a clear lead in Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur in southern France, but exit polls showed it taking only a slender lead over the Republicans, with each party projected to win about 30 to 35 per cent of the vote.

Across France, National Rally's vote share of about 19 per cent was nine points lower than its performance at the last regional polls in 2015.

The party, which has never won a regional presidency, emphasised its key issues on policing and immigration during the campaign.

French President Emmanuel Macron stands by a voting booth during the first round of French regional and departmental elections, in Le Touquet-Paris-Plage, northern France, Sunday, June 20, 2021. The elections for leadership councils of France's 13 regions, from Brittany to Burgundy to the French Riviera, are primarily about local issues like transportation, schools and infrastructure. But leading politicians are using them as a platform to test ideas and win followers ahead of the April presidential election. (Christian Hartmann/Pool via AP)

Turnout slumps 

Overall turnout was projected to be as low as 31 to 33 per cent, down from 50 per cent in 2015.

The lack of public campaigning because of Covid-19 restrictions was thought to have played a part in the low turnout.

"It's a democratic slap in the face for all of us," Aurore Berge, a leading MP from Mr Macron's centrist LREM party, told French television.

LREM won about 10 to 11 per cent of the vote, underlining its failure to put down regional roots after its success at national elections in 2017.

All 13 regions in mainland France are electing regional assemblies, which have budgets of billions of euros and powers over schools and transport.

"I'm not going to mince words: yes, of course we're disappointed," LREM leader Stanislas Guerini said on French radio.

Mr Macron is expected to seek a second term in 2022 but the list of potential rivals has yet to be finalised.

Aside from Mr Bertrand, possible candidates from the Republicans include Valerie Pecresse, the leader of the Ile-de-France region around Paris, who was on course for a healthy lead.

The French people are telling politicians they do not trust them

Another centre-right possibility is the EU's former Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.

Ms Le Pen’s candidacy could lead to a rerun of the second round in 2017, in which she lost in a landslide to Mr Macron.

Meanwhile, France’s socialists and ecologists are jockeying for position after the left was heavily beaten in 2017.

Left-wing alliances led by the Socialist Party finished first in five regions.

The Greens said they would continue their campaign in Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur, complicating the position for the second round.

Ms Le Pen said the low turnout had given a misleading impression of the parties’ political strengths.

The high level of voter apathy was a "civic disaster that deformed the electoral reality of the country", she said.

France’s Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, a member of Mr Macron’s party, said the low turnout was “a defeat for all of us”.

“No-one can be happy when there is a 70 per cent abstention rate, rising to over 80 per cent among young people,” he said.

“The French people are telling politicians they do not trust them.”