Brussels: French far-right leader Marine Le Pen won her symbolic duel with President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday, as eurosceptic forces made strong gains in the EU parliamentary election.
Turnout EU-wide was estimated at 51 percent, the highest in 20 years, suggesting more than 200 million citizens across the 28-nation bloc voted in a poll billed as a battle between populists and pro-European forces.
Mainstream parties put up enough of a defence to keep a possible majority in the 751-seat assembly - and Green parties surged in western Europe - but Le Pen's victory in her head-to-head with Macron set the tone of the night.
Le Pen's National Rally was on track for around 24 percent, with Macron's centrists trailing with 22 to 23 percent, according to two polls from Ifop-Fiducial and Harris Interactive-Agence Epoka.
Le Pen's party was already the biggest French group in the outgoing parliament, and does not seem to have gained ground, but Macron personally invested himself in the campaign and was diminished by his loss.
Italy's far-right League, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, also won the most votes with between 27-31 percent, according to exit polls.
Across Europe however, according to a projection prepared by the parliament, the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) is on course to have the most seats in the assembly with 173, down sharply from 216 in 2014.
'Marginals less marginal'
With the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) projected to win 147, down from 185, the two mainstream parties will no longer have a majority and will have to reach out to liberals to maintain a "cordon sanitaire" and exclude the far-right from decision making.
Each previous EU election since the first in 1979 has seen turnout fall, but initial figures from across the 28-nation bloc suggested this year's culture clash has mobilised both populists and those who oppose them.
"I guess that some marginal parties will be less marginal tonight," European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said as he cast his vote in his native Luxembourg.
According to exit polls, Germany's anti-immigrant AfD broke 10 percent in a national poll for the first time, while the mainstream socialist lost ground and the Greens moved into second place behind the ruling centre-right.
And in Belgium the far-right Flemish separatist Vlaams Belang was on course to triple its previous score.
In Finland, the far-fight Finns Party increased its vote share and retained its two EU seats. The Sweden Democrats were on course to increase their share from 9.67 to 16.9 percent.
In his home country of Poland, European Council chief Donald Tusk expressed confidence that voters would not succumb to the approach of what he called "radical political movements, eurosceptics".
But he admitted that the stakes were high: "The first priority, not only for this institution, is to save the EU as a project, not only at this time but in the long term, and I'm sure that they will manage."
Eurosceptic parties opposed to the project of ever closer union hope to capture as many as a third of the seats in the EU parliament, disrupting Brussels' pro-integration consensus.
The far-right parties of Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini and France's Le Pen led the populist charge, but anti-EU ranks will also be boosted by the Brexit Party of British populist Nigel Farage.
Macron had taken it upon himself to act as figurehead for the centrist and liberal parties, and Le Pen took up his challenge.
"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," said the lead campaigner for Le Pen's National Rally, Jordan Bardella.
Another nationalist party, the Fidesz of Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban, was on course for a massive 56 percent victory, according to a poll conducted Sunday.
European democracy 'alive'
Turnout was much higher in many countries than in 2014, a historic low.
German conservative Manfred Weber, lead candidate for the centre-right EPP group hailed the public interest, declaring: "European democracy is very much alive."
The mainstream parties are vying between themselves for influence over the choice of a new generation of top EU officials, including the powerful president of the European Commission.
Britain and the Netherlands were first to vote, on Thursday, followed by Ireland and the Czech Republic on Friday with Slovakia, Malta and Latvia on Saturday, leaving the bulk of the 400 million eligible voters to join in on Sunday.
Even if Britain leaves the European Union on October 31, the latest deadline set for its Brexit date, its MEPs could still play a role in this summer's scramble to hand out top jobs.
Thursday's votes from Britain will not be counted until after polls close in Italy, but Farage's Brexit Party appears on course to send a large delegation to a parliament it wants to abolish.
But much will depend on who gets the top jobs: the presidencies of the Council and the Commission, the speaker of parliament, the high representative for foreign policy and director of the European Central Bank.
EU leaders have been invited to a summit on Tuesday to decide the nominees. The EPP is insisting on Weber for the Commission, but Macron and some others oppose choosing a parliamentarian.