HENIN-BEAUMONT, France For a glimpse into the possible future of European politics in an age of economic despair, look to the French town of Henin-Beaumont, where a firebrand leftist is taking on far-right chief Marine Le Pen for a parliamentary seat in her home district.
Once a thriving coal mining centre, the town in France's northernmost corner has become a breeding ground for radical ideas after years of economic decline and with faith in local Socialist officials at low ebb due to a spate of corruption scandals.
As locals prepare to vote in a two-round parliamentary election on June 10 and 17, polls show they are likely to shun mainstream candidates in favor of Le Pen and Left Front party boss Jean-Luc Melenchon, who placed third and fourth, respectively, in a first-round presidential vote in April.
Their showdown has gripped France, pitting the two outsize personalities against each other in a battle to prove their legitimacy against a backdrop of economic fatalism, rejection of the European Union and wounded worker pride.
Comparisons with other stricken regions of the euro zone are common in the former trade union bastion, which lost its budgetary autonomy in 2008 after officials unveiled a gaping deficit.
"We're in the same mess as Greece, only we are lying to ourselves," said Arnaud Villette, 52, owner of the soon-to-close Cafe Univers in Henin-Beaumont's main square. "People here are so fed up, they vote to express their rage at the system, it's not even politics anymore."
"ONLY LE PEN DEFENDS YOU!"
Economic malaise was the single biggest factor in the April-May presidential election, in which voters punished Nicholas Sarkozy for failing to curb raging unemployment as France lurched through economic crisis and euro-zone debt turmoil.
The angry mood helped Le Pen place first in Henin-Beaumont on April 22 and she hopes the town will now act as a launching pad to get her anti-immigrant party into parliament for the first time since 1986.
Backed by well-organized militants who have papered the town with posters that declare: "Only Marine Le Pen defends you!", her victory looked safe, until the popular Melenchon announced his own bid.
Latest polls suggest Le Pen could lose.
An Ifop survey published in late May in weekly newspaper JDD showed Melenchon beating Le Pen in a runoff round of voting by 55 to 45 percent.
Among Le Pen backers, however, Melenchon's bid is dismissed as a publicity stunt. The hard-left leader is reviled as a candidate dropped from the sky and lacking legitimacy. The National Front says it has by contrast been on the ground in Henin-Beaumont since 2002.
"He's looking for a rebound," Front organizer Laurent Brice said of Melenchon. "He needs to find a way to keep existing after the (presidential) election, and his best hope is to seek publicity on the back of Marine Le Pen."
The flight of industry and the rise in unemployment to more than 16 percent has dimmed hope for change and made locals cynical. But Brice says Le Pen's vow to clean up local government has hit home in the wake of a corruption scandal targeting former Socialist mayor Gerard Dalongeville.
In Henin-Beaumont, arguments against immigration come second to calls for withdrawing from the euro currency, which Brice says locals blame for ruining their buying power.
"This is a proud working class area where people don't like to take handouts," he said. "People turn to us because they are desperate and other parties have abandoned the field."
TWO SIDES OF PROTECTIONISM
For Melenchon, whose time in the media spotlight may have ended quickly without the Henin-Beaumont bid, the goal is to tap dormant left-wing sympathies and beat Le Pen on her home turf, discrediting his rival after she outpolled him on April 22.
On campaign near Henin-Beaumont, the battle seemed to be playing out as a clash of ideas: both protectionist, but radically opposed on immigration and the euro currency, which Le Pen wants to abandon and Melenchon supports.
In nearby Mericourt, a town surrounded by coal slag heaps and dotted with desolate rows of "corons", brick houses built for miners, drivers greeted Melenchon with a chorus of honking. One yelled: "Help us get rid of Le Pen!"
Glad-handing locals in his signature red tie, Melenchon argued that outsider status was no drawback.
"The job situation is national, factory closures are national, the euro crisis is international ... What is there not to understand?" Melenchon told journalists after a stop at an old-age community. "Bit by bit, we are reclaiming our terrain."
Many in the immigrant-heavy district said they preferred Melenchon's tirades against bankers and vows to bleed the rich over Le Pen's attacks on immigration.
"This is a bastion of unionism where people carry notions of sharing in their bloodstream," said retired taxi driver Ali Abdouci, 66. "No matter what Le Pen says, her arguments are racist at heart and I think people will reject her."
In nearby Libercourt, where immigrant families live alongside the region's last surviving miners and their widows, Melenchon appeared at ease mingling with a crowd of youths.
Asked by one of them why Le Pen had refused to debate with him during the presidential campaign, Melenchon, a native of Tangiers in Morocco, drew cheers when he shot back using an Arabic word: "You know, she's archouma (ashamed)."
But the response was more muted among older locals, many of them Polish immigrants. As a Left Front militant went door-to-door in old miners' homes, some falling apart from disrepair, an elderly widow summed up her frustrations.
"I've been working for 40 years to support myself after my husband passed away, and I see people here earning as much as I do on handouts," said the woman, who declined to give her name.
Asked who she would vote for between Le Pen and Melenchon, she said: "That's none of your business."
(Editing by David Holmes)