Marine Le Pen, the former head of France's far-right National Rally, on Sunday blamed poor turnout for her party's worse-than-expected performance in the first round of the regional vote.
Initials projections by three polling agencies showed the center-right Republicans would top the weekend's vote. The final outcome would decide the assemblies for mainland France's 13 regions and 96 departments. The first round of the vote, however, was hit by a record-low turnout of less than 34%.
"Our voters didn't turn out," said Le Pen from her northern industrial stronghold of Henin-Beaufort.
"I call on them to respond urgently," she added, branding the poor turnout "a civic disaster that deformed the electoral reality of the country, and produces a misleading vision of the current political forces.''
What the current state of Le Pen's far-right party?
Le Pen quit the party leadership earlier this year ahead of her expected presidential run next year.
Yet she remains its most influential figure and she has been trying to reshape the National Rally, previously known as the National Front, as a more mainstream political force.
In the past, it has faced accusations of antisemitism and Islamophobia.
The 52-year-old had been hoping to build momentum for the race for the Elysee, the French presidential residence, with a big victory in Sunday's vote.
How do French regional elections work?
Unless parties win over 50% in the first round, a runoff will be held on June 27. Only parties that garner 10% of ballots will advance to that crucial second vote.
After a challenging year with lockdowns and restrictions, French President Emmanuel Macron is in a precarious situation. His party, the Republic on the Move (LREM), was not projected to win any of the 13 mainland regions.
The Republicans, who currently run seven of those regions, won the most overall votes Sunday. Polling agencies put them at 27-29% of the total.
They were followed by the National Rally at 18-19%, then the Socialist Party, the Greens party, President Macron’s Republic on the Move and far-left France Unbowed.
Official initial results showed a similar breakdown.
Far right's move to mainstream
Le Pen's party was expected to win at least one region, propelling her into the national spotlight with her new, softened image. While she was not a candidate in these elections, she has campaigned as the face of the party.
"She appears less extreme in the eyes of the French, less dangerous for democracy, than she did a decade ago," said Brice Teinturier, an analyst with pollster IPSOS, speaking with the Reuters news agency.
Exit polls showed her party topping the first round in Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur.
Le Pen's party picked up roughly 40% in the last regional elections there in 2015.
But other parties worked together to keep the far-right out of power.
What does this mean for President Macron?
Exit polls in the deindustrialized north showed conservative candidate Xavier Bertrand — a Macron rival — beating Le Pen's party.
A win would bolster his chances of becoming the conservatives' presidential candidate in 2022, and cut into the president's center-right voter base.
But some analysts say that the results of regional elections are mostly driven by local dynamics combined with a high abstention rate, and cannot be seen as a measure for the larger political picture in France.
see-jf/mm (Reuters, AFP)