All eyes on France's far-right party as it seeks new gains in weekend vote, rivals alarmed

Discontented Socialists, frustrated conservatives and an eclectic array of others — from gays to political renegades — could be among those casting ballots for France's extreme-right National Front in local voting this weekend, elections that promise to solidify leader Marine Le Pen's position as one of the country's leading political figures.

Le Pen has been the single most visible presence in weeks of campaigning on city streets and in rural villages with a relentless message to voters fed up with traditional parties: We care about you, they don't.

For Le Pen, Sunday's election for more than 2,000 local councils is an important step in building a grassroots base critical to her ultimate goal: the 2017 presidency.

"This is the big straight line to 2017," she said in a speech early this month in Paris. "There is no minor election, no minor vote."

The National Front decries immigration, fears Islam is uprooting traditional France and wants to withdraw from the European Union and euro currency. It's a hardcore line that Le Pen has successfully turned into a charm offensive for the disgruntled.

A poll published days ahead of Sunday's first-round balloting gives the National Front a leading 30 percent of the vote. That is just ahead of the conservatives and their allies, who measured 29 percent. It is leagues ahead of the 19 percent of President Francois Hollande's Socialist Party. The second round is scheduled for March 29.

The governing left, unable to revive stagnant growth or lower the 10 percent unemployment rate, did not need a poll to know where it stands. Divided within and out of favor with the party faithful, the Socialists are expecting a drubbing — the only question seems to be how bad it will be.

The spotlight beamed still more brightly on Le Pen this month when Prime Minister Manuel Valls voiced the unspoken fears of the mainstream political class, saying Le Pen could, indeed, win the presidency.

"I fear for my country," Valls said. "I fear it will get smashed against the National Front."

The prime minister's bold declaration was a clear bid to lure voters, and give pause to those tempted to turn their backs on mainstream parties. Divisions within the left and the right could send voters to the proudly anti-establishment National Front, a scenario aggravated by a predicted high abstention rate — which favors upstart parties whose supporters are more fired up than the mainstream ones.

The National Front comes off a string of electoral success last year. It won control of 11 towns, took three seats in the French parliament and increased its seats in the European Parliament from three to 24 — more gains than any other French party.

Pollsters have predicted the National Front could even benefit from votes from disgruntled Socialists — the traditional arch-enemies of the far-right.

Le Pen has moderated her message since taking over leadership of the party in 2011 from her firebrand father Jean-Marie Le Pen, to make it an attractive alternative to what she disdainfully refers to as "UMPS" — an amalgam of the conservative UMP party and the Socialist PS.

She has worked to scrub away the anti-Semitic stigma of the National Front — while relentlessly attacking immigration and Muslims who cling to their traditions, from eating halal meat to wearing the Islamic veil. She said Thursday she wants all mosque construction frozen until it is clear who finances them.

To draw in voters looking for a softer political identity than the National Front, Le Pen created what she called the "Blue Marine Rally" — an alliance of small anti-establishment parties. And she refuses the extreme-right label, calling herself and supporters "patriots."

National Front candidates vying for posts — many of them untested — range from party veterans to newcomers to her latest prize: Sebastien Chenu, a defector from the mainstream conservatives who co-founded a gay liberation movement.

The National Front now includes several gays in leadership posts. Chenu, running in Beauvais, north of Paris, said his membership shows that the National Front mirrors French society.

"They tried to make people believe for years that those supporting Marine Le Pen were the marginalized," he told The Associated Press. "No, it's France in its diversity."


Thomas Adamson in Paris contributed to this report.