PARIS (AP) — Zero. That was the score of France's National Front in critical weekend elections, almost as surprising as its front-runner status going into the vote.
Yet, while voters may have denied the anti-immigration party the leadership of any of the country's regions, it picked up more votes than ever before, leaving opponents scrambling for a strategy to counter it.
Sunday's runoff in regional elections became a national referendum on the far right, which led handily in six of 13 regions after the first round a week earlier. The National Front has for decades been a thorn in the side of the French political class, the kingmaker in vote after vote. But since it began an image change in 2011 under party leader Marine Le Pen to scrub away the stigma of anti-Semitism clinging to it, the National Front has become a threat for both left and right.
It has made inroads in a series of recent elections, and experts declared after the Dec. 6 first round of voting that the anti-immigration party had become a third force in French politics, along with the conservative right and the governing Socialists.
The Socialists moved to the front line to block the party in two key regions — where Le Pen and her popular niece were running — by withdrawing their own candidates. And it worked. The northern Socialist bastion under threat from Marine Le Pen fell to the conservative right, as did the southern region of Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur where 26-year-old lawmaker Marion Marechal-Le Pen had held the edge, and she too lost.
The deft tact was costly for the Socialists — who got nothing in return from the conservative right and who will have no one on the leadership councils in those regions for six years. In contrast, the left and right joined forces in 2002 to block party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine's firebrand father, from winning the presidency.
A leading figure in former President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative party, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, said that if the Socialists hadn't acted this time, "our candidates tonight ... would have lost" against the Le Pens. "Voila. It's obvious."
In the four other regions where the National Front led, it was a week of tireless campaigning and voter fear of the far right that clearly made the difference.
"We avoided a catastrophe," said Parisian Sylviane Koch. While the Paris region was never expected to go to the far right, her remarks underscored the national dimension of the stakes.
There was no real victor in Sunday's vote. The political map changed, with wins in seven regions by the conservative right and five by the Socialists — who once controlled almost all regions — and one to a candidate unaffiliated with a political party.
But the wins were "joyless," Socialist Party leader Jean-Christophe Cambadelis said.
"The National Front hasn't been contained. ... It has momentum," he said on Europe 1 radio.
The party took a record number of votes and was sure to weigh in presidential balloting in 18 months. The National Front received 6.8 million ballots compared to its last best performance of 6.4 million votes in the 2012 presidential race.
It also tripled its representation in regional councils. Representation in local forums is critical to the party as it works to build a grassroots network and train an elite political class ahead of the presidential vote.
Politicians on left and right sounded the alarm, saying that French ills, from joblessness to inequality and a political system that fails to undo the problems — all considered National Front electoral fodder — must be cured, and quickly.
"That's the political landscape of France today: The mainstream parties are inspiring indifference," said Emmanuel Riviere, an analyst at opinion poll agency TNS Sofres.
"The National Front is attractive to its very enthusiastic electorate, which represents between one-quarter and one-third of the French, but it also inspires a lot of aversion, which led many French to react and say, 'No, I don't want it,'" Riviere added, speaking on France Info radio.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls tore into the party between the two rounds, saying it divides the French and could lead the country into civil war.
Marine Le Pen blamed such scare tactics and a political system that tries to lock out "patriots" for the party's losses. But she conceded nothing.
"It's the price to pay for the emancipation of a people," she said after the voting.
For Parisian Michel Chaput, the National Front's failure to take a single region was less political than emotional.
"I think it was more a people's leap rather than anything else," he said. "The first round was more a 'fed up' vote, it was a protest vote. ... Even if a lot of people voted (for the National Front). I hope it won't go any further in the next election."