PARIS - 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.

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.

The National Front 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 with 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.