By Ingrid Melander
PARIS (Reuters) - France's National Front scored its best ever local election result, but its hopes for power remain thwarted by widespread distaste for its anti-immigration policies and an election system that allows voters to block it from office.
The far-right FN won one in four votes in the first round of local elections on March 22, its highest score ever. In the second round last Sunday, it secured 62 councillors in 14 departmental assemblies, less than 2 percent of councillors nationwide but a big jump from the single councillor it had before.
Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls acknowledged the "lasting upheaval" the FN had brought to an electoral landscape dominated for decades by a center-right and a center-left party.
But FN leader Marine Le Pen had hoped to top the party's unprecedented victory in last year's EU elections and the strong showing in the first round of the local elections with another milestone: obtaining control of one or two departments. That did not happen.
"(The FN) is undeniably spreading and putting down roots," said Ipsos pollsters' analyst Jerome Fourquet. "It's just maybe at a slightly less spectacular pace than some had hoped or predicted."
Like other fringe parties in Europe, the FN has attracted voters angry with rampant unemployment and a stagnant economy and disillusioned with mainstream politicians such as President Francois Hollande, who is deeply unpopular.
It has proven particularly popular in the southeast of France and in the unemployment-ridden northeast.
Le Pen blamed her party's failure to win any department on election rules that she said were "made to prevent the FN, and therefore its voters, millions of French people, from having elected officials".
France's two-round system, where individual candidates need to attain a threshold to reach the first-past-the-post final round, does indeed put at a disadvantage parties such as the FN who fail to strike alliances with others.
Although some in ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP would be tempted by deals with the FN, both Sarkozy and the Socialists have ruled out alliances with a party that wants to take France out of the euro and is still viewed by many in France as too right-wing to be acceptable.
Under Marine Le Pen, the party stopped being content with attracting protest votes and worked hard to clean up its image of having links to neo-Nazi groups and peddling anti-Semitism.
Despite these efforts, and Le Pen's growing popularity, most voters still find the FN's policies unpalatable: 68 percent of French voters would consider it a bad thing if their local department council was ruled by the FN, an Ipsos poll showed.
This phenomenon has long been dubbed the "republican front". While it is weakening, especially among voters on the right of the mainstream spectrum, analysts see it holding it enough for now to keep the FN out of power.
"When you have 30 or 40 percent for the FN, it means there are still 60 or 70 percent who do not want it to win," said political science professor Philippe Cossalter.
HUNGRY FOR POWER
Building a network of local officials is key to promote Le Pen's bid for the 2017 presidential and parliamentary elections. Her father and party founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, had been content with being an outsider in national polls, but his daughter wants power.
In a telling sign that an FN presence on the center stage of politics has become normal, the party's recent successes did not provoke a mass outcry such as in 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen made it to the second round of the presidential vote.
His breakthrough took France by surprise and hundreds of thousands took to the streets to march against the FN. By 2015, its leaders have become a regular feature on news shows and supporters readily appear on TV.
Analysts see more FN candidates being elected to parliament in 2017 but remaining a minority, not strong enough to directly influence government policy. And Le Pen would likely make it to the second round of the presidential election but lose it.
"The FN has made a spectacular leap compared to three or four years ago but winning the presidential election is not an issue for the moment," Fourquet said.
(Additional reporting by Gregory Blachier; Editing by Andy Callus and Raissa Kasolowsky)