More than 360 million people were eligible to vote in the four-day election, although turnout in EU polls is historically low

Brussels (Belgium) (AFP) - EU elections on Sunday saw striking gains for the far-right as exit polls put Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France and Alternative for Germany ahead of the governing camps – boosting their efforts to sway the bloc at a pivotal moment.

Projected results from France put far-right Le Pen’s party around 33 percent, with 31 seats in the incoming European Parliament – more than double the score of President Emmanuel Macron’s liberals back on 15 percent.

Across the border, the Alternative for Germany party shrugged off a string of pre-election scandals to rise to second place with around 16 percent – coming ahead of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats and its two ruling coalition partners.

French President Emmanuel Macron's liberal Renaissance party is headed for an election drubbing

The stinging blows for Europe’s most powerful centrist leaders meant that the far-right was on course to significantly boost its presence in the EU’s transnational parliament.

But parties on the extreme right remain divided – and still look likely to be kept on the sidelines in Brussels.

Predictions are that centre-right and centre-left parties that have dominate the legislature should be able to maintain a majority along with centrist partners.

The crushing victory for Le Pen in France had been widely predicted – and her party had already come first in the European polls in the country in 2019.

“A deep humiliation as expected for Macron’s centrist camp in today’s European elections,” Mujtaba Rahman, an analyst from Eurasia Group wrote.

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen voted in her northern town of Henin-Beaumont

But he said the results were likely to have less impact in shaping policies in the EU, than shaking weak incumbent governments in France and Germany.

More than 360 million people across the EU’s 27 nations were eligible to vote, over four days since Thursday, to help shape the European Union’s direction over the next five years.

The election comes as the continent is confronted with Russia’s war in Ukraine, global trade tensions marked by US-China rivalry, a climate emergency and the prospect of a disruptive new Donald Trump presidency.

“Right now we are living in a scenario of uncertainty,” Jaime Bajo, a sports centre operator, said as he cast his vote in Madrid.

“I can understand that people feel fear and vote with a hard mindset,” said the 40-year-old, who predicted a “rise of extremist forces” in Europe.

The bloc’s next parliament will help decide who runs the powerful European Commission, with German conservative Ursula von der Leyen vying for a second term.

- Ascendant far-right -

European voters, hammered by a high cost of living and some fearing immigrants to be the source of social ills, are increasingly persuaded by populist messaging.

Though centrist parties are expected to keep most of the legislature’s 720 seats, polls suggest they could be weakened by a stronger far right pushing the bloc towards ultraconservatism.

In EU countries closest to Russia, like here in Poland, the spectre of Russia's threat loomed large

In Germany, turnout was the highest since 1979 at 66 percent. But that did not spare Chancellor Scholz from a dismal night – with all three parties in his troubled coalition behind the conservatives and the far right, exit polls showed.

On 14 percent, Scholz’s Social Democrats trailed the far-right AfD, seen winning 16-16.5 percent, and came well behind the conservative CDU-CSU bloc’s 29.5 percent.

In Austria, the far-right Freedom Party was leading the count according to exit polls, the first time the group has topped a nationwide ballot in the Alpine country.

Florentine Bonaert, a 32-year-old business owner in Vienna did not disclose who she voted for, but said “migration policy was incredibly important” to her, as well as climate change and its impact on future generations.

The bloc's next parliament will help decide who runs the powerful European Commission, with German conservative Ursula von der Leyen -- who cast her vote in her home country -- seeking a second term

In the Netherlands the far-right Freedom Party of Geert Wilders was beaten into second place on 17.7 percent by the Green-Labour coalition led by former EU commissioner Frans Timmermans, EU parliament estimates showed.

In Italy the far-right ruling Brothers of Italy party of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni was expected to come out on top.

Meloni is being courted both by von der Leyen – who needs her backing for a second mandate – as well as Le Pen and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who would like to form a far-right parliament supergroup.

- War worries -

The Hungarian leader has stoked fears of the Ukraine war expanding to one between the West and Russia, blaming Brussels and NATO. As he cast his vote he framed it as a “pro-peace or pro-war election”.

Women wearing 'Bollenhut' pompon hats typical of the Black Forest region line up to vote in Gutach, southern Germany

But in eastern EU countries, the spectre of Russia’s threat loomed large.

“I want security, especially for the Baltic states. And greater support for Ukraine to end the war,” said Ieva Sterlinge, a 34-year-old Latvian doctor.

Likewise in Romania, psychologist Teodora Maia said she cast her vote on “the theme of war, which worries us all, and ecology”.