23 March 2015
Last updated at 00:42
Turnout was reported to be 51%, up from 45% in the same elections in 2011
France’s centre-right UMP party and its allies have taken first place in the first round of local elections, partial results show.
Projections suggest that the far-right National Front – despite strong gains – came second with about 25% of the vote, behind the conservatives on 30%.
President Francois Hollande’s governing Socialists came third with about 20%.
Voters are electing representatives in 101 departments, or counties, charged with issues like schools and welfare.
The results mean the second round on 29 March will see a run-off between the UMP and the FN in many constituencies.
In the past, voters for rival parties have combined in the second round to keep the far right out.
The poor results for the Socialists follows on from their defeats in municipal and EU elections last year.
Some polls ahead of the vote had indicated that Marine Le Pen’s FN could come top in the first round.
Mr Hollande, pictured here leaving a polling booth, has seen support for his Socialists fading
Ms Le Pen, who cast her ballot in Henin-Beaumont in northern France, is expected to run for president
Analysis: Hugh Schofield, BBC News, Paris
It’s another big vote for the French far right, following the municipal and European elections last year. In this first round of departmental or county council elections, nationwide 24.5% of voters chose the National Front, according to one poll.
It is a figure that shows yet again how Marine Le Pen’s strategy of building a system of local organisation and shutting down the party’s overtly racist elements is paying off.
However, opinion polls had suggested the far-right could have done better – even emerging as the most popular party in the election.
That didn’t happen, which has given some cheer to the mainstream opposition here, led by former President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Ms Le Pen had been hoping the elections would build momentum ahead of her expected bid for the presidency in 2017.
Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls welcomed the news that the FN had scored less that some had predicted, saying the results showed it was not the strongest force in French politics.
However, Ms Le Pen called for Mr Valls to resign, celebrating what she said was a “massive vote” for her party, exceeding its performance in the European Parliament elections.
For the first time, voters in these elections are not choosing single candidates – but pairs of candidates – one man and one woman – in order to enforce strict gender equality in local politics.