Far right chief sees French polls as step 1 in march toward legitimacy _ and, she hopes, power

The Associated Press

FILE - - In this March 8, 2014 file photo, French far-right party leader Marine Le Pen walks past a poster of her at the party headquarters in Henin-Beaumont, northern France, as part of the municipal campaign. 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. (AP Photo/Jacques Brinon, File)

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By ELAINE GANLEY, Associated Press

HENIN-BEAUMONT, France (AP) — 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.