French voters went to the polls on Sunday for a first round of regional elections that saw record-low turnout, with an abstention rate estimated at between 66 and 68 percent.
The election will see new assemblies elected for mainland France's 13 regions and 96 departments, with Marine Le Pen's National Rally (RN) party (formerly the National Front) tipped to win at least one region for the first time in what would be a major political gain for the party.
Le Pen is not standing as a candidate but she has been campaigning hard ahead of presidential elections next year that surveys show could end up being a close race between her and centrist President Emmanuel Macron.
"What would be great for her (Le Pen), and would spark some momentum in the pre-presidential campaign, would be if the National Rally won a region," Stéphane Zumsteeg from the Ipsos polling firm told AFP.
Though far-right politicians preside over a handful of towns, running a region with a budget of billions of euros and powers over schools, transport and economic development would lend it the sort of legitimacy that Le Pen craves, analysts say.
The voting will be held over two consecutive Sundays, with a second round set for June 27 unless parties win more than 50 percent in the first round.
The problem with predictions
Analysts caution against trying to extrapolate too much from the results that in many cases will be driven by local dynamics and a high abstention rate, limiting how much they should be seen as indicators for the larger political picture in France.
But the outcome of the regional elections 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).
"These elections are never good for the party in power. You always get it in the neck," a minister told AFP last month.
Predictions are difficult because of the two-stage electoral system and the impact of tactical voting, which usually sees mainstream parties gang up to keep the far-right out of power.
A survey last week showed National Rally candidates leading in six of the 13 mainland regions in the first round, meaning results on Sunday night might suggest sweeping dominance for the party.
But because of tactical voting – leftist and centrist voters often turn out in droves to keep the far right from victory – they could end up losing all of the run-off votes, as they did in the last regional elections of 2015.
Abstention benefits the fringe
Turnout at 5pm on Sunday was 26.72 percent, according to Interior Ministry figures, far lower than it had been in the first round of equivalent previous elections. At the same hour during December 2015 regional elections, 43.01 percent had turned out to vote. During March 2015 departmental elections, 42.75 percent had cast a ballot by 5pm.
Pierre Lefébure, a political scientist at the Sorbonne university in Paris, noted that voter apathy tends to benefit the political fringe.
"The more abstention goes up in terms of the number of votes cast, the extreme ends of the political spectrum are the winners," said Lefébure. "Above all the RN, which has a very committed electorate that has been fired up by campaign material that features Marine Le Pen's face everywhere, just a year from the presidential election."
Antoine Bristielle, a public opinion expert at the left-leaning Jean-Jaurès Foundation, believes the vote will likely serve as another step in the normalisation of the once-fringe far right.
"You can see that it's not so much that the ideas of the National Rally are more popular or are more accepted by French society," he told AFP. "It's that the party no longer scares people enough to spark a wave of opposition."
Voters have largely shrugged off a series of scandals that have enveloped at least half a dozen RN candidates over their past racist or anti-Semitic comments, or even their criminal records.
The vote is also seen as critical for centre-right presidential hopefuls Xavier Bertrand, head of the Upper France region, and Valérie Pécresse, who runs the Paris area, who are both running for re-election.
The election could also result in gains for the green EELV party, which performed strongly in local elections last year.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)