The parties of French President Emmanuel Macron and French far-right leader Marine Le Pen performed weaker than expected in the first round of regional elections yesterday, in a vote marked by record levels of abstention.

On current projections, Mr Macron's party may fail to reach the required threshold to qualify for the second round of voting next week.

Projections showed the centre-right Republicans party on course to top yesterday's vote, while Ms Le Pen's National Rally undershot forecasts based on voter surveys conducted last week.

"Our voters didn't turn out," Ms Le Pen said in her first comments after the vote from her stronghold of Henin-Beaumont in northern France. "I call on them to respond urgently."

Although she was not standing for election herself, she had been hoping for a strong party performance to give her momentum ahead of next year's presidential and parliamentary elections.

The vote for new assemblies in mainland France's 13 regions and 96 departments takes place over two consecutive Sundays, with a second run-off vote scheduled for 27 June.

Polls last week had suggested the National Rally (RN) could finish top in six regions in the first round, possibly putting it on course to win at least one of them for the first time in its history.

Its best hope was in the southeastern Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur - home to Marseille, Saint-Tropez and Cannes - where its campaign was fronted by Thierry Mariani who had been forecast to finish first.

But Mr Mariani was running neck-and-neck with the current head of the region, Renaud Muselier from the Republicans, at between 30-35% of the vote, according to exit polls.

It is hard to predict the ultimate winner here, or elsewhere, because of the complicated electoral system and the impact of tactical voting, which usually sees mainstream parties gang up to keep the far-right out of power.

But at a national level, the projected vote share for the RN of around 19% is around nine points lower than in the last regional polls in 2015.

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Political narrative

Analysts had warned before the vote that the results would be driven by local dynamics and a high abstention rate, limiting how much they should be seen as indicators for the 2022 presidential and parliamentary elections.

But the outcome will inevitably shape the narrative in the coming weeks, particularly with regard to the strength and electability of Ms Le Pen, as well as the state of Mr Macron's enfeebled party, the Republic on the Move (LREM).

Polls for next year's presidential election suggest a close race between Mr Macron and Ms Le Pen.

LREM performed poorly across the country, with a national vote share of 10-11%, underlining how it has failed to convert five years in power at the national level into grassroots support.

"I'm not going to mince words: yes, of course we're disappointed," party leader Stanislas Guerini told RTL radio.

Meanwhile, the projected abstention rate of 66.1-68.6% - the highest for an election since at least 1958 - led to speculation about the causes, and introspection about the health of French democracy.

The lack of public campaigning due to Covid-19 restrictions appears to have played a part, as did the warm, summer weather that saw people snub the voting booth in favour of time with friends and family after months of lockdown.

"I'm appalled: French people complain all the time, but when they need to vote, they prefer going to the beach of the swimming pool," said Jihad Meroueh, a supporter of Mr Mariani, at his election night headquarters near Avignon in the south of France.

The trend of increasingly high abstention has been clear for years, not only in the local polls last year disrupted by coronavirus, but in the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2017.

"We could say it is a collapse in electoral turnout," political scientist Bruno Cautres from the Cevipof institute at Sciences Po university said.

"It's a democratic slap in the face for all of us," Aurore Berge, a leading MP from Macron's party, told the BFM channel.

Several French political personalities looked set to emerge strengthened from yesterday's vote, however, including centre-right presidential hopeful Xavier Bertrand, head of the Upper France region.

Exit polls had him winning 39-47% of the vote in the first round, putting him on course for victory.

"We've unlocked the jaws of the National Front in order to smash them here," Mr Bertrand said, referring to Ms Le Pen's party by its previous name.