By Andrew Callus
PARIS (Reuters) - Former president Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative UMP party and their allies led in the first round of French local elections, exit polls showed on Sunday, denying Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front (FN) first place.
If confirmed, the result would be a setback for Le Pen, who had hoped her anti-immigrant, anti-euro party would emerge top in the first round, boosting her ambitions to win presidential elections set for 2017.
The UMP and its partners together secured 29.2 percent of the vote nationally, an exit poll by Ifop showed, ahead of the anti-immigrant, anti-euro FN on 26.3 percent. A separate poll by CSA put Sarkozy and his allies on as much as 31 percent, with the FN on 24.5 percent.
As expected, President Francois Hollande's ruling Socialists came third with around 20 percent of the vote, underlining their unpopularity after failed promises to bring unemployment down from current levels around 10 percent.
The vote was for local councillors in France's so-called "departements", one level in France's complex multi-layered system of local government. About one in two voters were estimated to have snubbed the poll.
Despite failing in its ambition to come top in the first round, the score marked strong gains for the FN, which wants a return of the franc and a referendum on capital punishment.
It surfed a wave of disenchantment with established parties to emerge top in last year's European Parliament elections and won control of a dozen city halls in a separate ballot.
However the two-round nature of Sunday's ballot means the FN will win control in only a handful of departements in second-round run-offs due on March 29. Many UMP and Socialist voters are expected to switch allegiance to whatever party can keep the FN out of power.
(Additional reporting by Mark John; Editing by Andrew Callus)