France’s far-right suffered defeat at the hands of the traditional right in two key battlegrounds in Sunday’s regional elections, exit polls showed, dealing a blow to its leader Marine Le Pen’s presidential ambitions.
The southern Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region had been seen as the far-right Rassemblement National’s best prospect for bringing credibility to Ms Le Pen’s claim that it is fit for power ahead of the 2022 presidential election.
An exit poll by IFOP showed the far-right winning 44.2 per cent of the run-off vote in PACA compared to 55.8 per cent for the mainstream conservatives. A second survey by Opinionway showed the far-right taking 45 per cent of the vote compared to 55 per cent for its rivals.
In another contest in the northern Hauts-de-France region, exit polls showed the centre-right ticket headed by conservative Xavier Bertrand, another contender for the presidential vote, headed for a comfortable victory over the far-right.
Senior conservatives crowed that the centre-right’s strong performance nationwide meant it was the force for change, as President Emmanuel Macron’s party polled poorly, according to the exit polls.
"The far-right has been stopped in its tracks and we have pushed it back sharply," Mr Bertrand told his supporters moments after the polls closed.
"This result gives me the strength to seek the nation’s vote," Mr Bertrand said, alluding to next year’s election.
If the projections are confirmed, they will raise questions over how successful Ms Le Pen’s strategy of softening the image of her anti-immigration euro-sceptic party to try to eat into the traditional right’s vote has been.
Even so, analysts say the apparent failure of Ms Le Pen and her party to win in two of its strongholds should not be extrapolated on to next year’s presidential election.
Voter turnout in the country’s 13 regions was very low and voters typically have little affinity with their regional administrations that are responsible for promoting economic development, transport and high schools.