PARIS (Reuters) - Marine Le Pen's far-right Rassemblement National party hoped France's regional elections in June would bolster her credentials as a leader fit for power and provide a platform for her 2022 presidential bid.
Those hopes hung in the balance on Sunday after a record low turnout across the nation saw the party perform worse than predicted. Voters, as expected, also punished President Emmanuel Macron and his ruling party.
WHY DO THEY MATTER?
The next presidential vote is less than a year away. Pollsshow that contest is most likely to result in a repeat of the 2017 duel between Macron and far-right leader Le Pen - onlythis time the gap between the two will be narrower.
The regional results do not give a representative snapshotof who will win the presidential vote. However, if the far-rightwere to secure its first ever regional powerbase it would send tremors across the political landscape.
Macron's ruling La Republique en Marche (LaRem) will notwin any region outright, revealing the extent towhich it has failed to plant roots locally.
For the conservative Les Republicains party, which has struggled to rebuild its identity since centrist Macron dynamited the traditional parties in 2017, the challengeis to hold onto their seven regions and demonstrate they canserve as a bulwark against the far-right.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
Each party presents a list of candidates. If no singleticket garners more than half the votes in round one, all thosewith more than 10% of votes go into the second round, meaningthere can be three or more parties involved.
Party lists may merge between the first and second round.Historically this has happened to block the far-right fromwinning, a phenomenon known as a 'front republicain'.
Regional council seats are allocated on a proportionalbasis. The ticket that wins the most votes wins a bonus of aquarter of the seats. This means Le Pen's party can win controlof a region with less than 50% of the vote in round 2.
WHERE ARE THE KEY BATTLEGROUNDS?
1) PROVENCE-ALPES-COTE D'AZUR:
The southern region encompassing Marseille and the FrenchRiviera, with above average immigration and unemployment, haslong given the far-right some of its best scores.
Polls before the vote showed Le Pen's ticket, headed by a former conservative minister, Thierry Mariani, could win the region that is home to Marseille, France's second city, and the Riviera. Mariani's advantage over his Les Republicains rival on Sunday was narrower than anticipated.
The leader of the Green party ticket said he would not withdraw from the race, a move which would favour the far-right if maintained.
Elabe exit poll:
Far-right (Rassemblement National): 35.70%
Conservatives + Macron's party (LR + LaRem): 34.70%
Left-wing alliance (Socialists + Greens): 15.70%
The northern region around Calais, once home to France'scoal-mining industry, pits the incumbent and frontrunner tobecome the conservative's candidate in the presidentialelection, Xavier Bertrand, against Le Pen's party spokesman andMacron's justice minister.
A win for Bertrand would bolster his chances of becomingLR's presidential candidate. Macron aides see the one-timehealth minister as a rival who would erode the president'scentre-right voting base.
The margin of Bertrand's projected lead in the first round means he does not need to strike an alliance with LaRem in the second round to defeat the far-right, something that would have undermined his pitch as Macron's opponent-in-chief in 2022.
Elabe exit poll:
Centre-right (LR): 44%
Far-right (Rassemblement National): 24.40%
Left-wing alliance: 18%
Macron's LaRem: 8%
(Editing by Richard Lough; editing by Diane Craft)