In a vote characterised by poor turnout, with an abstention rate of almost 70 per cent, the centre-right party Les Republicains made a comeback, according to exit polls.
An Ipsos exit poll showed Les Republicains winning just over 27 per cent of the national vote, ahead of the far right, on a little more than 19 per cent. Mr Macron’s La Republique En Marche won just over 11 per cent.
France’s interior minister, Gerald Darmanin, told France 2 television that the results of the first round of regional elections were a failure for Mr Macron’s party.
He added that the low turnout was a “defeat for all of us ... Abstention is a message. The French people are telling politicians they do not trust them.”
Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National also did worse than expected. Pre-election surveys showed the party leading in as many as six of France’s regions, but exit polls showed her only leading in the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region in the first round.
Ms Le Pen described the low turnout as a “civic disaster”, and said it was due to mistrust of the electoral system, which left voters feeling that “nothing can change, that everything has been confiscated”.
Victory in one of the French regions would be a first for the far-right and herald the broader normalisation of the party in French politics.
David Lees, associate professor of French at the University of Warwick, said: “Macron’s party does not have a strong local activist base, being comparatively young in contrast to its competitor parties. This, combined with some dissatisfaction with Macron’s handling of the pandemic, was necessarily going to harm Macron’s chances of winning over many regions (and departments) in yesterday’s vote.
“Macron still has time to organise ahead of the 2022 presidential elections and will hope that the regional election result was evidence of a mini-protest vote rather than a more long-term issue.”
“Above all, though, there seems to have been an air of complacency on the part of Le Pen, who seems to have assumed voters would reject Macron and turn to the far right. Instead, voters have still rejected Macron – not unusual for the incumbent, as Francois Hollande could testify from the 2015 regional elections – but turned to the centre right.”
The regional elections are often seen as a bellwether for how political parties will fare in the presidential elections.
Fourteen French regions – 12 on the mainland, plus Guadeloupe in the Antilles, and Reunion island in the Indian Ocean – choose from a total of 19,084 candidates to fill 1,757 regional council seats.
The regional elections were delayed for three months as a result of the pandemic. Candidates receiving more than 10 per cent of the votes in the first round face a run-off to be held on 27 June. Following Sunday’s first-round vote, parties have until Tuesday morning to build alliances and register their lists of candidates for the second round.
Mr Darmanin said it was too early to draw conclusions regarding the presidential elections scheduled to take place in 2022.
Additional reporting by agencies