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French nationalists expected to narrowly beat Macron's centrist party in EU vote

Key Points
  • Exit polls showed National Rally, a re-branding of Le Pen's National Front, beating Macron's party by just one seat.
  • It represents a setback for the French leader, who had put himself at the forefront of a bruising and personal campaign. 
Emmanuel Macron, France's president, speaks ahead of the Balkan summit at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, on Monday, April 29, 2019.
Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Marine Le Pen's euroskeptic National Rally have topped the European election vote in France, early results published Monday showed, narrowly beating the centrist alliance of President Emmanuel Macron.

National Rally, a re-branding of Le Pen's National Front has taken 22 seats, beating Macron's party by just one seat. It represents a setback for the French leader, who had put himself at the forefront of a bruising and personal campaign, while nationalist supporters across the bloc are likely to celebrate a symbolic victory.

In a statement, Macron's office described the performance as disappointing but not disastrous. It also said pro-EU parties were still in the majority.

The French Greens were seen coming third in a crowded field of candidates, adding to the remarkable second place of their German counterparts. The result is likely to bolster expectations of a so-called "green wave" that could influence EU policy over the coming years.

How do European elections work?

Much improved voter turnout

The projected result comes at a particularly challenging time for Macron — a Europhile who was elected back in 2017. His reform agenda, including on the labor market, has frustrated some French citizens over the last two years — which has escalated into months of protests and historically-low levels of popularity for the president.

Nonetheless, the narrow defeat to Le Pen's National Rally most likely won't derail Macron's domestic agenda, as the government seeks to impose a major overhaul of the pension system over the coming months.

This was Macron's first European election, having formed his own party for the presidential race back in 2017.

Marine Le Pen's party, on the other hand, won the 2014 European parliamentary election in terms of French seats in Brussels. At the time she got nearly 25% of the votes, which translated into 23 seats at the European Parliament.

The European elections are widely seen as a test on national leaders across the 28 countries.

What is the EU?

Initial results on Sunday evening suggested the EU Parliament's established centrist bloc would most likely fail to gain a majority at this week's election.

A strong showing for Liberal and Green parties in Germany and France, as well as robust performances from euroskeptic groups in Italy, Hungary and the U.K., is likely to mean the EU Parliament will be much more fragmented over the next five years.

The European Parliament's first estimate of the overall turnout in the elections was somewhere between 49% and 51%. That's up from 43% in the 2014 election.

France had an unexpectedly high turnout in the election, estimated to be around 50%. It marks the country's highest voter turnout in decades.

Populism and far right parties pose a challenge to the EU, expert says