* Le Pen eyes landmark win in southern France
* Macron faces challenge ahead of 2022 presidential vote
* Turnout nationwide projected at a record low
* Centre right does better than expected (Recasts, adds details)
By Michel Rose and John Irish
Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National expressed frustration at a record low turnout, as the centre right made its first comeback at the ballot box since a disastrous showing in the 2017 presidential election and President Emmanuel Macron’s party finished fifth.
The high abstention rate in Sunday’s first-round vote, projected at 68.5% by pollster Elabe, coincided with a sunny Sunday and emergence from months of tough COVID-19 curbs.
“This evening the government won because for the last few weeks it has been in search of a massive abstention rate,” said Jordan Bardella, Le Pen’s lead candidate in the greater Paris region.
An IPSOS exit poll showed the centre-right Les Republicains winning 27.2% of the national vote, ahead of the far right on 19.3%, followed by the Green party, the Socialist Party and Macron’s La Republique en Marche on 11.2%.
The regional elections, for which a second round of voting will be held on June 27, offer a taste of the voter mood ahead of next year, and a test of Le Pen’s credentials.
She has made a concerted push to detoxify her party’s image and erode the mainstream right’s vote with a less inflammatory brand of eurosceptic, anti-immigration populist politics.
In the northern Hauts-de-France region, Les Republicains performed stronger than expected, according to exit surveys, polling ahead of the far right with a wider-than-forecast margin.
The party’s lead candidate in the north, Xavier Bertrand, who is pitching to be the conservative’s presidential candidate in 2022, said the centre right had shown it was the most effective bulwark against the far right.
Opinion surveys project Le Pen will poll highest in the first round of next year’s presidential vote, propelled by a support base fed up with crime, threats to jobs from globalisation and a ruling elite viewed as out of touch with ordinary citizens.
Le Pen’s party has never before controlled a region. If she wins one next week, it would send a message that a Rassemblement National president in 2022 cannot be ruled out.
Two exit polls showed Rassemblement National finishing top in Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur, but with a narrower-than-expected margin over the centre right’s Renaud Muselier, who had struck an alliance with Macron’s party.
Results of Sunday’s first round will send parties into backroom dealing for two days to strike alliances ahead of the second round. (Reporting by Michel Rose and Reuters TV; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise and John Stonestreet)