A European Parliament election that could reshape the political order across the continent is drawing to a close, with the anti-immigrant far right projected to win in France.
Germany’s centrist governing party is also heading for heavy losses.
The four days of balloting across the 28 European Union countries were seen as a test of the influence of the nationalist, populist and hard-right movements that have swept the continent.
Exit polls in France indicated that Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party came out on top, in an astounding rebuke for French President Emmanuel Macron, who has made EU integration the heart of his presidency.
Exit polls indicated the party of German Chancellor Angela Merkel also suffered major losses.
With the stakes high, turnout across the bloc — not counting the UK, which is quitting the EU — was put a preliminary 51%, a 20-year high.
An estimated 426 million people were eligible to vote in what was considered the most important European Parliament election in decades. Full results are expected overnight.
The balloting, which began on Thursday, pitted supporters of closer unity against those who consider the EU a bureaucratic presence and want to return power to national governments and sharply restrict immigration.
Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, a major figure among the anti-migrant hard-line nationalists, said that he felt a “change in the air” and that a victory by his right-wing League party would “change everything in Europe”.
Mainstream centre-right and centre-left parties were widely expected to hold on to power in the 751-seat legislature that sits in both Brussels and Strasbourg.
But the nationalist and populist parties that are hostile to the EU were expected to make important gains that could complicate the workings of the Parliament.
In the first major exit poll, in Germany – the EU’s biggest country, governing parties were predicted to lose ground while the Greens were set for big gains.
The far right was also expected to pick up slightly more support.
Germany’s Manfred Weber, the candidate of the European People’s Party, currently the biggest in the legislature, said in Berlin that the elections appeared to have weakened the political centre.
He said it is “most necessary for the forces that believe in this Europe, that want to lead this Europe to a good future, that have ambitions for this Europe” to work together.
In France, Ms Le Pen’s National Rally party said the expected result was a “clear punishment” for Mr Macron and the EU itself.
Hungary’s increasingly authoritarian prime minister Viktor Orban, a possible ally of Mr Salvini, said he hopes the election will bring a shift toward political parties that want to stop migration.
The migration issue “will reorganise the political spectrum in the European Union,” he said.
The EU and its Parliament set trade policy on the continent, regulate agriculture, oversee antitrust enforcement and set monetary policy for 19 of the 28 nations sharing the euro currency.
Other countries voting on Sunday included Italy, Poland, Portugal, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Belgium and Lithuania.