Nationalist surge in EU election as far-right party edges ahead



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Marine Le Pen's far-right party has edged just ahead of the centrist alliance of President Emmanuel Macron in exit polls as French voters led what pollsters expect to be a nationalist surge in the EU parliament election.

The defeat was narrow - just one seat - but a bitter one for for those who hope the French leader can inspire Europeans to embrace the European Union as an answer rather than part of the problem in the face of what for many is nerve-racking social change.

However, a first official projection of all 751 seats by the European Parliament indicated that losses for the pro-EU centre may have been no worse than expected, with the Greens and liberals also gaining at the expense of the centre-right and centre-left.

Marine Le Pen. (AAP) ()
Brussels officials and pro-EU party leaders also took heart from a substantial increase in turnout - the first in the 40-year history of direct elections to the parliament.

It was about 50 per cent, up from 43 per cent in 2014 - hardly massive, but an end to the declines that have fuelled talk of a "democratic deficit" that undermines the legitimacy of EU lawmaking.

Dropping about 40 seats each, the conservative European People's Party and Socialists & Democrats lost the majority they formed in a "grand coalition" with the EPP on top, according to the projection.

Gains for the liberal ALDE and its allies under Macron put them in the frame for a bigger say. The Greens, in fourth place, could be kingmakers as the Socialists eye their chances of taking a lead despite again trailing the EPP by 20-30 seats.

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The elections have consisted of four days of ballots across the 28-nation bloc. A clearer picture of the legislature will come once the final polls close in Italy at 11pm local time (0700 AEST Monday).

The far-right League of Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini stands a chance of pipping Chancellor Angela Merkel's German conservatives as the party with the largest number of seats in the chamber.

Another contender will be the new Brexit Party of veteran British anti-EU campaigner Nigel Farage, set to top the vote in the country that was supposed to have left the bloc two months ago.

Nigel Farage. (EPA)
He is determined to make the departure happen and that his MEPs will not sit for long - though drama after the resignation of Prime Minister Theresa May leaves the fate of Brexit still very uncertain.

In France, an official in Macron's team acknowledged "some disappointment" that, with some 22 per cent, the president's Renaissance movement had lost first place to Le Pen's National Rally, which exit polls put on 24 per cent. However, pro-EU parties were still in the majority, with the French Greens coming third.

Added to the dazzling second place of their German counterparts, that lent credibility to expectations of a "green wave" that will influence policy in Brussels in the coming years.

French President Emmanuel Macron. (AAP)
The parliament's forecast put the EPP on 173 seats, ahead of the S&D on 147, with the liberals on 102, up 33 seats, and Greens on 71, up 19.

On the far-right, two groups in the current parliament had a combined 113 seats, a 50 per cent gain from 2014.

Other parties may also add to the anti-EU firepower, such as the ruling parties in Poland and Hungary, and a new far-right movement in Spain. However, divisions among nationalist groups have limited their effectiveness in blocking EU policymaking.

In Germany, the biggest member state and one of 21 countries that voted on Sunday, an exit poll for public broadcaster ARD showed the Greens on 22 per cent, Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and their conservative allies on 28 per cent, down eight points from 2014, and the Social Democrats slumping nearly 12 points to 15.5 per cent.

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) raised its share of the EU vote by 3.4 percentage points to 10.5 per cent.

© AAP 2019