PARIS – For the National Front party, French towns should look French. That means no more new mosques or kebab shops.
The anti-immigration party is striving to be France's big winner in European Parliament elections next weekend and its leader has been ramping up the rhetoric, describing her appeal as patriotic rather than extremist.
"We want to be the masters in our countries," Marine Le Pen said. "The Austrians want to be the masters of Austria, the French want to be masters in France, the Belgians masters in Belgium, and this is perfectly legitimate."
The National Front, which also wants to unravel the European Union and withdraw France from the euro currency, hopes to win up to 20 of France's 74 European Parliament seats in the Sunday, May 25 vote. It currently holds just two seats, but polls show it running neck-and-neck with the conservative UMP party and well ahead of the governing Socialists.
The party's agenda is already being imposed in some French towns following the election this spring of 11 National Front mayors, including Julien Sanchez, who has taken charge in the debt-ridden southern town of Beaucaire. Once a prosperous trade route on the Rhone River, today Beaucaire's ancient stone center is in disrepair and its unemployment runs at 20 percent, double the national rate.
"We must give this town a traditional look. ... Tourists want to see a Provencal town," he said in an interview. "They don't want to see a town full of shops with others' customs. We will block this kind of commerce." He said police would patrol the kebab shops already present to ensure they aren't a cover for what he called "dishonest" activity, such as drug sales.
Since donning the tricolor mayoral sash last month, the 31-year-old Sanchez has budgeted for three more police officers and spent 2,000 euros ($2,750) to save the town's stray cats from euthanasia.
And Sanchez is keeping the EU flag flying atop the town hall so as not to "create arguments" — even as he helps his party's candidate, Louis Aliot, seek election to the European Parliament.
But his approach has a harder edge that mirrors the National Front's call to protect the French identity. In his city, which has a large Muslim community, that means barring more shops selling kebabs, a Middle Eastern-style sandwich, from opening in a central square dominated by derelict storefronts.
Elsewhere, the National Front mayors of Henin-Beaumont in the north and Frejus on the Riviera have lowered the EU flags at their city halls.
In Mantes-la-Ville west of Paris, Mayor Cyril Nauth is trying to block the construction of a new mosque for local Muslims, who represent around a third of the town's 20,000 residents.
He failed to show up this week for a signing that would have clinched the sale of the town's Treasury building for conversion to a mosque. The deal had won council approval before his election and was secured with a hefty deposit.
Abdelaziz El Jaouhari, president of the Association of Muslims of Mantes-Sud which is buying the property, called Nauth's absence "Islamophobic and racist." He said that since Nauth's election victory, hate mail and scraps of pork — considered ritually unclean in Islam — have been shoved into the mailbox of the Muslim community's prayer room.
On Friday, as around 100 Muslims protested in front of the town hall, Nauth asked them to abandon the mosque project.
The Associated Press made several phone calls to the town hall over two days seeking an interview, but Nauth did not respond. He told the daily Liberation newspaper that he opposes the mosque plans because his voters want it blocked.
El Jaouhari said his association will sue the mayor and force the city to honor the deal.
The confrontation may risk longer-term consequences for the National Front, whose president, Le Pen, has worked hard to undo the party's racist, xenophobic image gained under the leadership of her father, party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen. She has had a measure of success in erasing that stigma and boosted support in traditionally Socialist bastions.
The National Front wants to avoid repeating its disastrous experience of the 1990s, when it suffered a voter backlash after four National Front-controlled towns were seen to attack cultural activities in pursuit of party ideology. They cut funding to minority groups, banned books deemed too "cosmopolitan" from libraries, and banned rap performances in favor of traditional folk music. They also floated the idea of paying bonuses to French couples for having children.
Culture Minister Aurelie Filippetti said she is monitoring whether cultural activities are suppressed again in far-right towns. Some artists, fearing a hostile audience, already have canceled summer performances in Beaucaire.
For Martine Tacconi, who works for a Beaucaire employment firm, it's no surprise that the far right was elected.
"We have a very fragile population, people without diplomas, without qualifications ... people at the bottom of the ladder," she said. "I can understand people are in a fed-up phase and I think it (the vote) was to show that."
Associated Press reporter Masha Macpherson in Paris contributed to this report.