France's far right has performed worse than predicted in regional elections, exit polls show, leaving victory in the southern battleground of Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur and a platform for the 2022 presidential election in the balance.
Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement National expressed frustration at a record-low turnout, as the centre right made its first comeback at the ballot box since a disastrous showing in the 2017 presidential election and President Emmanuel Macron's party finished fifth.
The high abstention rate in the first-round vote, projected at 68.5 per cent by pollster Elabe, coincided with a sunny Sunday followed months of tough COVID-19 curbs.
"I can only but regret this civic disaster, which has very largely deformed the electoral reality of the country and given a misleading idea of the political forces at play," Le Pen said.
"If you want things to change, get out and vote."
An IPSOS exit poll showed the centre-right Les Republicains winning 27.2 per cent of the national vote, ahead of the far right on 19.3 per cent, followed by the Green party, the Socialist Party and Macron's La Republique en Marche on 11.2 per cent.
For Le Pen's far right, that is a drop of more than seven percentage points compared with the 2015 regional elections, which followed the Paris Islamist attacks.
The regional elections, which will have a second round on June 27, offer a taste of the voter mood before next year.
Le Pen has worked to detoxify her party's image with a less inflammatory brand of euro-sceptic, anti-immigration populist politics.
Macron's ruling party did as badly as expected, with a party spokesperson calling it a "slap in the face".
Opinion surveys project Le Pen will poll highest in the first round of next year's presidential vote, propelled by a base fed up with crime, threats to jobs from globalisation and a ruling elite viewed as out of touch with ordinary citizens.
Two exit polls showed Rassemblement National finishing top in Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur, but with a narrower-than-expected margin over the centre right.
Australian Associated Press