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In France, Sarkozy's UMP conservatives lead in local elections

Strong turnout in France's local elections helps blunt far-right National Front's rise

France's conservative Union for a Popular Movement dominated local elections Sunday, blunting the rise of Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front.

Initial projections gave the UMP 31% of the vote in elections for 2,000 local councils, compared with 24.5% for the National Front and 19.7% for the governing Socialists and their allies.

The Socialists, who had never expected to do well in the first-round elections, had urged people to turn out and vote to prevent a far-right victory, even if that boosted the chances of former President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservatives. Turnout was 51%, up from about 45% in the same elections in 2011.

With little of the despair of a man whose party came in third, Prime Minister Manuel Valls was the first to praise the far-right party's defeat.

"This evening, the extreme right … is not at the forefront of French politics," Valls said. "When we mobilize the French, it works."

Le Pen's name was nowhere on the ballots, but her National Front is trying to build a grass-roots 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, who 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.

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