France's National Front: 'The party of poor people'?

Image caption Marine Le Pen has attempted to change the National Front's image since becoming leader in January 2011

The French presidential election, beginning in April, promises to be a close run thing and the right-wing National Front party are looking to gain votes out of France's social and economic unrest.

A market in northern France and the politicians are out pressing the flesh, of both fruit and prospective voters.

Market in France? - I know what you're thinking - camembert and croissants, home-made jam and tablecloths.

But this is post-industrial Abbevillle, a gritty town on the Somme where people are feeling the pinch.

The stalls are full of cheap electronics and drab clothes. The richest pickings are for the National Front (NF) politicians, on the prowl for votes.

Unemployment is running at 30% in Abbeville - non-coincidentally, the same figure as local support for the National Front.

Money and jobs are scarce in the town, which recently lost its prized sugarbeet plant, a source of civic pride for more than a century.

The people blame the closure on EU directives that sent their jobs abroad. They are angry about the eurozone crisis and the high price of food.

Little wonder then that support for the National Front, and its patriotic focus on French jobs, French pride and French money, is winning popular support.

Some who once voted Communist are now joining hands with traditional right wing voters.

Last week the party's modernising leader, Marine Le Pen, introduced the French media to her campaign group - it could scarcely be more culturally inclusive.

There is a mother whose family roots are in the Ivory Coast and a man from Guadaloupe, who used to support President Nicolas Sarkozy. A civilian police worker with Moroccan origins, a leading light in French Jewry and the director of human resources for the Marie Claire media group.

Gone is the neo-Nazi rhetoric that was a hallmark of the former National Front leader, her father Jean-Marie. Purged too, are the brutish skinheads who used to police entry to party meetings.

Image caption Economic unrest is dominating the presidential election agenda

In Abbeville I meet a new model NF official, Christian Mandosse, a 40-something with a talent in new media.

"We are just normal people," shrugs Mr Mandosse, gesturing at his university lecturer clothes.

You cannot imagine the octogenarian Jean-Marie Le Pen taking to Twitter, or updating his Facebook status to "Ranting in Rheims", but Mr Mandosse is busy spreading the new party doctrine on social media.

"We refuse to be labelled 'far right'," he says. "In fact, we are turning a little bit to the left. We're the party of poor people."

Nonetheless, immigration remains a key preoccupation.

Ms Le Pen would give French citizens priority over foreigners for jobs, housing and welfare.

"Because we have five million French people unemployed and there's no reason for us to have overseas people arriving each year," Mr Mandosse told me.

"If we had a lot of work, I'd understand, but we have nothing to offer. Nothing."

There is consternation in liberal France that Marine, who was elected leader in January 2011 and has no ministerial experience, appears to attract so much support.

She is currently running third behind the president and the Socialist challenger, François Hollande, but neither man should underestimate the threat the NF poses.

That was the mistake made in 2002, when Jean-Marie - with just 18% of the vote - sensationally knocked out the Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, to reach the second-round run-off.

Both leading candidates have their problems.

The president is seen as a Marmite politician - people love him or loathe him.

Image caption Nicolas Sarkozy is in second place in opinion polls behind Socialist candidate Francois Hollande

By contrast, the bland Monsieur Hollande is strictly vanilla - one of his nicknames is Flanby, a brand of pudding. Like Marine Le Pen, he has never had a ministerial job. Nonetheless, he leads "Sarko" in the polls with his crowd-pleasing pledges to tax the rich.

Privately, the president is said to accuse Monsieur Hollande of "péché d'arrogance", the "sin of arrogance".

That is "a little rich" say voters, referring either to the irony or perhaps the president's wealthiest friends.

Marine Le Pen, meanwhile, steals votes from both sides.

Critics insist she's a fascist with a nice face, pointing out that only last month she attended a far-right ball in Vienna, that was held on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

And in Abbeville, I could not help but notice that for all the amiable assurances Christian Mandosse had given me, there was a rather sticky moment when one market stall-holder asked "what will you do for us? The French gypsies?"

"Er, nothing," said Mr Mandosse with perhaps more honesty than might have been expected.

There is still a reluctance among voters to declare publicly their intention to vote for Marine Le Pen's party and she is still short of the support of the 500 mayors necessary to reach the presidential ballot.

Yet despite the reticence of elected officials, the polls suggest she is eating into Nicolas Sarkozy's slice of the vote and could yet supplant him in the second round.

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