PARIS (AP) — France's governing Socialists never expected to do well in Sunday's first-round local elections, and their strategy worked just as planned: Their conservative rivals took first place.
Before the elections for 2,000 local councils, the Socialists urged people to vote, hoping that turnout would blunt the rise of Marine Le Pen's far right National Front, even if it meant Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative UMP would be the victor.
Initial projections from polling agencies gave the UMP party 31 percent of the vote compared with 24.5 percent for the National Front and 19.7 percent for the Socialists and their allies. Turnout was 51 percent, compared with about 45 percent in similar elections in 2011.
With little air of a man in third place, Prime Minister Manuel Valls was the first to praise the far right party's defeat.
"This evening, the extreme right, even it is too high, is not at the forefront of French politics," Valls said. "When we mobilize the French, it works."
Le Pen was nowhere on the ballots themselves, but her National Front is trying to build a grassroots army of local officials to buttress her presidential ambitions in 2017.
France's council elections are in two rounds, so victory Sunday determines which candidates can contest a second vote March 29.
The Socialists, which currently control the majority of the councils, are deeply unpopular after the government's failure to turn around France's economy. Both they and the UMP are torn by infighting, leaving the National Front something of an open field for the first round.
But both the Socialists and UMP, normally rivals, have issued dire warnings about France's future under a resurgent National Front, which is opposed to immigration, the perceived "Islamization" of France, and the European Union. Le Pen has tapped disillusionment with a stagnant economy and transformed the party from a pariah under her father, party co-founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, into one of France's most popular political forces.
Jockeying ahead of the second round started moments after the first-round results came in.
Valls essentially called for voters to choose anyone running against a National Front candidate.
Sarkozy, who like Marine Le Pen is eyeing the 2017 presidential race for a comeback, told supporters to abstain in the second round if a UMP candidate wasn't running.
And Le Pen demanded Valls' resignation for "trying to lead a campaign against the people, a filthy and violent campaign that stigmatized millions of French voters."
One outcome is certain: Half of those elected will be women.
Instead of voting for individual candidates, the ballots contain tickets — one man, one woman — in order to overcome years of failed efforts to get more women into government. Currently, only 16 percent of council members are women.