Ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy wins French local elections; far right makes limited gains

PARIS (REUTERS) - The far-right National Front (FN) made only limited gains in French local elections won by ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy's conservatives on Sunday.

The anti-immigrant, anti-EU party is likely to have won up to 108 local council seats, from holding only one currently. But they will have too few in any one of the 102 "departements" to control any of them, updated exit polls showed.

Sarkozy's UMP and its allies will take over 66-70 departements, up from 41, while the ruling Socialists will lose about half of the 61 departements they previously held, a poll by CSA for BFMTV said. Other polls had similar results.

Winning two thirds of the departements will be a boost for Sarkozy, whose comeback four months ago at the helm of the UMP is challenged by other party veterans. "The French people have massively rejected the policies of (President) Francois Hollande and his government," he told party supporters. "The time for change is now."

Marine Le Pen's FN is banking on building a base of locally-elected officials to be better placed to contest national ballots but is struggling to transform its growing popularity into winning constituencies.

Initial exit polls had shown the FN might win two departements, but the party conceded it had failed to do so. It said however the fact that it had won many seats would help spread its ideas.

"In the second round we knew that the electoral system would allow the UMPS accomplices to share the pie among them," Le Pen's father and FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen said, referring to the UMP and Socialist (PS) parties.

"But it's a victory for the FN," he said, pointing out that the party had attracted one in four votes in the first round.

His daughter Marine said the local elections would be "the foundations for the big victories of tomorrow".

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, whose deeply unpopular administration had tried to play up modest signs of recovery in the euro zone's second largest economy, conceded defeat and said the government would introduce new measures aimed at boosting employment and public and private investment.

"The far right's strong, much too strong, results are a challenge to all democrats," he said. "This is a sign of a lasting upheaval of our political landscape and we will all need to draw lessons from it."

The FN, which topped last year's European Parliament elections in France, is aiming to make more progress in regional polls in December. Surveys see Le Pen likely to make it to the second round of the presidential election in 2017, but not win.

In total, 4,108 councillors with limited powers over roads, schools and social services were elected in the two rounds of local elections.

The complex voting system, in which a duo of councillors is elected per constituency who then elect next Thursday the presidents of 98 "departement" councils, means it will take time to form an exact picture of how many councils each party has won.