March 17, 2015 / 3:21 PM / 4 years ago

France's National Front sees local election as step on road to power

PARIS (Reuters) - France’s anti-immigration National Front (FN) hopes to come top in the first round of local elections on Sunday, a result that could consolidate leader Marine Le Pen’s bid for the presidency in 2017.

Voters are unexcited about the election for councillors with limited powers in the “departements”, one stratum of France’s complex local administration which President Francois Hollande has in any case promised to overhaul.

But it is a measure of the fear Le Pen’s far-right party has struck among France’s political elite that Hollande, his ministers and their mainstream conservative rivals have all been touring the country with last-minute appeals to voters.

“The aim is to deepen our roots and bind local support, as we did in past votes, to prepare for victory in the presidential election,” David Rachline, mayor of the Riviera town of Frejus and one of the party’s young stars, told Reuters.

The FN, which wants a return to the French franc and a referendum on capital punishment, surfed a wave of disenchantment with established politicians to emerge top in last year’s European Parliament elections and won control of a dozen city halls in a separate ballot.

Surveys put it and the opposition UMP neck-and-neck to win just under a third each of Sunday’s vote, with Hollande’s Socialists trailing on around 20 percent, his popularity bounce Hollande after the solid handling of January’s Islamist killings mostly forgotten.

The two-round nature of the ballot means the FN will win control in only a handful of departements in run-offs due on March 29, as many UMP and Socialist voters will switch allegiance to whatever party can keep it out of power.

But it will be satisfied to get dozens of its people onto local councils where it currently has a total of two. This is the first time it is fielding candidates across the country.

“If we get one or more department, that will be the icing on the cake,” FN deputy leader Florian Philippot said of constituencies such as Var and Vaucluse in the south targeted by the party.

Hollande, who says his modest labor market and other reforms are finally starting to lift France out of stagnation, has ruled out any change of policy or prime minister in the wake of an almost certain defeat.

His hope is that unemployment, still just above 10 percent, will improve in time to see off the FN threat in 2017.

“The recovery is here,” he said this month. “Why should I change policies now?”

Additional reporting by Jean-Francois Rosnoblet in Le Luc-en-Provence; Writing by Mark John; Editing by Robin Pomeroy

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