The far-right National Rally party led by Marine Le Pen looked set to finish top in European elections in France on Sunday, dealing a blow to pro-European President Emmanuel Macron.
Le Pen's National Rally looked on track for around 24-24.2 percent, with Macron's centrist alliance trailing with 22.5-23.0 percent, according to exit polls from Ifop-Fiducial and Harris Interactive-Agence Epoka.
The head of the National Rally campaign, 23-year-old Jordan Bardella, called the results a "failure" for the LREM ruling party and sought to portray Macron's defeat as a rejection by voters of his pro-business agenda in France and pro-EU vision.
"The gains for our allies in Europe and the emergence of new forces across the continent... open the way for the formation of a powerful group in the European parliament," Bardella told cheering supporters.
Le Pen, who lost out to Macron in a bitter presidential election in 2017, called for the head of state to dissolve the parliament and call new elections, a proposal that was immediately rejected by the government.
"It is up to the president of the republic to draw conclusions, he who put his presidential credit on the line in this vote in making it a referendum on his policies and even his personality," she added.
But the score of the National Rally, if confirmed, would represent a mixed picture for the 50-year-old Le Pen: her party might end up losing ground since European elections in 2014 when it finished top with 24.9 percent.
In a first reaction to the exit polls, an aide to Macron called the results as indicated by the exit polls "respectable" and suggested there would be no major policy changes as a result.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said the results confirmed the "redrawing" of French politics, as first seen in the presidential election in 2017, when France's traditional parties were eclipsed by Macron's new centrist movement and the far-right.
"The time is for action because the French people will judge us ultimately on one thing: results" he said in a televised statement.
Sources close to the head of state had told AFP before the election that a bad loss to Le Pen could prompt a cabinet reshuffle, with Philippe's job seen as in the balance.
"From tomorrow, I'll be ready to start work," he said.
- Continuity -
Macron had made no secret of the significance he attached to the results, telling regional French newspapers last week that the EU elections were the most important for four decades as the union faced an "existential threat".
He is the most vocal champion of further EU integration and is keen for further advances to link the economies, militaries and political systems of the bloc, which numbers 28 member states including Britain.
He had jumped into the campaign himself in recent weeks, appearing alone on an election poster in a move that analysts saw as exposing him personally just as he looks to recover from six months of anti-government protests.
So-called "yellow vest" protesters have blocked roads and demonstrated since mid-November to denounce high taxes and living standards for the working poor, leading Macron to announce major tax cuts and a rise in the minimum wage.
He also launched a major national public consultation called the "Great Debate" which encouraged citizens to voice their grievances.
"The measures announced after the Great Debate will continue. The aim is that people can feel the changes," the aide added on condition of anonymity.
- Green gains -
Reflecting a trend seen in other EU countries, the exit polls also showed the green party EEVL led by a former top figure at Greenpeace France making strong gains with a score of 12-12.7 percent compared with 8.9 percent in 2014.
The results, if confirmed later Sunday, would underline the continuing difficulties of France's traditional centre-right Republicans party, which is seen winning 8-8.1 percent, and the centre-left alliance including the Socialist Party on just 6.3-6.5 percent.
Turnout has risen considerably to 52-54 percent, according to nearly complete figures, compared with the last election in 2014 when it was 35.1 percent and 2009 when it slumped to 33.2 percent.