HENIN-BEAUMONT, France – Marine Le Pen sees political gold in the abandoned coal mines of northern France that once pumped life, jobs and an identity into places like Henin-Beaumont — a bleak town that the far-right leader says is the avant-garde of her anti-immigration party's march to power.
Le Pen has been digging the terrain of discontent around France, and in Henin-Beaumont — a Socialist bastion for decades — she is counting on a win in municipal elections that begin Sunday, the first of a string of electoral tests she hopes will catapult her National Front to the forefront of French political life.
Le Pen's party, which disdains the European Union and globalization and fears that Islamic culture will subvert French civilization, is aiming to leverage the municipal vote to build a grassroots base upon which to draw ahead of May elections for the European Parliament and the French presidential vote in 2017. She wants to officially scrub away the racist stigma that has long clung to the National Front and ultimately to upend the French political system by winning broad support for the party's "patriotic" doctrine.
Le Pen told The Associated Press in an interview that, while local concerns are at the center of the municipal vote, the National Front will ensure that party priorities like secularism are respected where it wins. That could be a potential flashpoint for conflict in towns with large Muslim populations where some groups seek to build mosques or serve halal food in school cafeterias.
"We don't have problems with Islam," she said, while adding: "France has Christian roots. (The French) want to recognize their own country, recognize their lifestyle, their habits, their traditions."
And the fringes of her movement cause concern.
Several neophyte candidates have posed in front of Nazi flags, prompting belated criticism from Le Pen. And this week, nearly two dozen militants from the hard-right Bloc Identitaire — which has no official ties with the National Front but is seen as a source of ideas for the party — patrolled public transport in the major northern city of Lille, a Socialist stronghold near Henin-Beaumont, Europe 1 radio reported.
The March 23 and 30 elections for mayors and town councilors could shake up the profile of many of France's 36,000 villages, towns and cities, most significantly in Paris. The nation's crown jewel will be getting its first female mayor as two women vie for the job, Socialist Anne Hidalgo and rival conservative Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet.
The National Front hopes to benefit from widespread disappointment in the forces that have dominated French politics for decades. Scandals are engulfing former President Nicolas Sarkozy and his fractious conservative party. Meanwhile the Socialists, who wrested major cities from Sarkozy's UMP in the last local elections in 2008, are suffering from President Francois Hollande's deep unpopularity and a government that has failed to create jobs or improve the economy.
"The system fears our vote, our choice for change," Le Pen said at a rally in a packed hall in Henin-Beaumont last week. She was there to support her party's mayoral candidate, Steeve Briois, but made clear the local vote carries a national message.
"The municipal elections have an essential role, to give hope to the French," she said. "You are the avant garde, the first to witness with rage in your hearts" all that is wrong with France.
With a dearth of trained officials, the National Front cannot compete on equal footing with leading parties. But it is still is running candidates in 596 towns — a party record. Even winning a handful of local municipalities would represent a sharp disavowal of mainstream politics. And with or without mayoral wins, Le Pen hopes to use good scores to put 1,000 councilors into city governments and thereby influence policies.
The National Front "is the only revolutionary party in France today," said Patrick Martinez, 50, holding a Bloc Identitaire banner at a recent anti-Islam protest march in Paris. He said he would vote National Front in his Lyon hometown because "we have nothing better today."
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault urged voters this week to "do everything" to keep National Front candidates from reaching city halls. In Henin-Beaumont, the League of Human Rights distributed tracts warning of the "danger" of a National Front victory.
Lucien Davril, 51, predicted increased tensions in the town with a National Front win. "There will be lots of damage, windows broken, cars burned," said Davril, who works at a sporting goods store, refusing to say who would get his vote.
Muslims in the town refused to comment to visiting reporters, in an apparent sign of growing concern.
The red brick town of Henin-Beaumont, about 200 kilometers (120 miles) north of Paris with a population of 26,000, is a perfect showcase for the National Front. Dark, eerily majestic hills of coal refuse, known as terrils, dot the horizon, a reminder of an economically vibrant past when coal was king. French laborers and immigrants from Europe and Muslim North Africa flocked to the area in the 19th century for back-breaking coal mining, famously depicted in Emile Zola's "Germinal."
Today, the unemployment rate is nearing 18 percent, many shops in the nearly lifeless town center are shuttered and people complain loudly about crime. Polls show the leftist workers' bastion is likely heading for a far-right flip-flop — after former mayor Gerard Dalongeville was convicted of embezzling public funds and left the town with a huge deficit. Dalongeville, appealing his conviction, is running again. So is current Mayor Eugene Benaisse, supported by the Socialists.
National Front candidate Briois is trying to win over voters with promises to install security surveillance cameras in the town, make police work nights and create a rapid-action police unit.
"We have locks and bolts everywhere," said 85-year-old widow Charlene Boduain, showing a scarred finger from an attack last year in a parking lot. Asked if she will vote for the FN candidate, she replied: "Yes, it is more than certain," adding that the far right is "better suited" to handling security matters.
National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen made it to the final round of presidential elections in 2002 but was crushed in the runoff. The party, financially strapped from the presidential fight, did poorly in the 2008 municipal elections.
Along came Marine Le Pen, Jean-Marie's daughter. A 45-year-old mother of three, she took over the National Front in 2010, working to clean its racist and anti-Semitic image and shoo away jack-booted followers in an attempt to make it a legitimate political alternative, not just a catch-all for protest votes.
She's been so successful that her party's tirades against Muslim immigration are mimicked on the right and, more subtly, on the left. Marine Le Pen placed a strong third in the 2012 presidential race, and the National Front won two parliamentary seats.
High unemployment and crime rates, corruption, and a visible Muslim population, are like calling cards for the National Front — and the extreme right elsewhere in Europe. Switzerland's recent winning referendum to cap immigration was a morale boost for the National Front and extreme-right parties across Europe.
Le Pen told The AP that she thought Islamic Sharia law would take over French justice within three decades if "mass immigration" wasn't stopped.
The National Front would run towns it wins "like a good father," she assured, hoping for victories in southern France, including towns where the party's parliament members are implanted.
But some remember four extreme-right victories in southern France in 1995 municipal elections, and worry. Corruption, deficits and bids to impose National Front ideology, such as banning books from libraries and adding National Front literature, proved disastrous.
Under the National Front, Henin-Beaumont would likely implement mainstream policies to provide a sanitized window to the broader French electorate.
"The martyred city of Henin-Beaumont, you will be the renaissance of France," she told the crowd at her final rally there. "You will show that another kind of politics is possible."
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