The party of France's far-right leader Marine Le Pen performed weaker than expected in the first round of regional elections Sunday, in a vote marked by record levels of abstention.
Early projections showed the center-right Republicans party on course to top Sunday's vote, while Le Pen's National Rally undershot predictions based on voter surveys conducted last week.
"Our voters didn't turn out," 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 June 27.
It is hard to predict the ultimate winners on the basis of the first round 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.
Polls last week had suggested the National Rally would 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.
The party's 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.
But Mariani performance did not appear to have met pre-vote polling figures: early results showed him neck-and-neck with the current head of the region, Renaud Muselier from the Republicans.
With a national vote share of around 19 percent, according to early results, support for the RN is around nine points lower than the last equivalent polls in 2015.
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 Le Pen, as well as the state of Macron's enfeebled party, the Republic on the Move (LREM).
Polls for next year's presidential election suggest a close race between Macron and 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.
The abstention rate of 66.1-68.6% -- the highest for a French election since at least 1958 -- led to speculation about the causes as well as introspection about the health of democracy.
The lack of campaigning due to COVID-19 restrictions appears to have played a part, and the warm summer weather saw many people out enjoying their freedom after months of lockdown, rather than in the voting booth.
But the trend of increasing high abstention has been clear for years, not only in local polls last year that were 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 Sunday's vote, including center-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.
"We've unlocked the jaws of the National Front in order to smash them here," Bertrand said, referring to Le Pen's party by its previous name.
"Their demagogy, their sterile suggestions, their intolerance, everything that divides and that is the National Front," he added.