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ANALYSIS-Le Pen faces reality check in depressed French towns

Source: Reuters - Thu, 3 Apr 2014 12:23 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* National Front set to rule in 11 towns

* Mayoral powers are limited, budgets tight

* Le Pen wants to show party can be trusted with power

By Nicholas Vinocur

PARIS, April 3 (Reuters) - Far-right leader Marine Le Pen humbled France's establishment with a powerful showing in local elections. Now comes the hard part: proving her party can improve everyday life in the gritty, problem-ridden towns it will run.

The anti-immigrant, anti-EU National Front won 11 town halls on Sunday, more than double its record from the 1990s in a performance that highlights the potential of far-right parties to win seats in European parliament elections in May.

But while Le Pen hails the victories as proof she has turned the party into France's third political force, its debutant mayors must tackle the realities of crime and joblessness with limited budgets and official powers.

Any slips could undo years of efforts by Le Pen to rebrand the National Front (FN), and revive perceptions that it is unfit to govern.

"Town management is now the number one problem facing the FN," said Jean-Yves Camus, a political analyst who researches the far-right. "It won't be easy to switch gears from criticising national government to managing garbage collection and local policing in a town of 10,000 inhabitants."

Newly-elected FN mayors must fix the party's reputation for poor management, earned in the 1990s when three of its mayors were accused by the national audit body of cronyism and diverting public money to their own expense accounts.

This time, National Front officials coached mayoral candidates on the rudiments of management, accountancy and legal practice, even setting up a network to offer them help.

The aim is to prevent setbacks such as when the southern town of Vitrolles tried to apply an FN "national preference" policy restricting family benefits to French and other European citizens, only to see it struck down by a court.

"We want to avoid repeating the errors of the mayors elected in the 1990s," said FN election campaign director Nicolas Bay. "We insisted that they come up with concrete proposals that they can actually apply: reducing taxes, reinforcing security and fighting social inequality."

TOUGH ON KEBABS, KIND TO PIGEONS

While mayors are prominent in French public life, their powers are limited by an unwieldy local government structure, with many of the bigger budgets in the hands of regional authorities deeply opposed to the National Front.

Most FN candidates kept campaign pledges accordingly modest, at the risk of being accused later of making little difference.

In the northern town of Henin-Beaumont - once a Socialist bastion where unemployment is 17 percent and a former mayor was convicted for misusing public funds - FN mayor Steeve Briois has promised a clean-up of official corruption, more police, lower local taxes and tougher traffic rules.

But he admitted that any change would take years. His town is saddled with 38 million euros ($52 million) in debt, the once-thriving mining economy has lost its main industrial employers and local people complain of worsening petty crime.

"This is a town that needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. That will take years," Briois told Reuters the day after his election, declining to give details of his spending plans.

In the eastern town of Hayanges - which last year erected a tombstone to mourn steel jobs which local people said had been killed by Socialist President Francois Hollande - FN mayor Fabien Engelmann is also trying to cut crime and local taxes.

But the 34-year-old, a one-time member of former movie star Brigitte Bardot's animal rights defence group, has said he also wants to build a pigeon house where eggs will be destroyed to control their population rather than by gassing them.

He has also proposed a "Pork Fest" to liven up the town centre, a plan he insists is not designed to offend Muslims but which will do little to alleviate high local unemployment.

Engelmann's election prompted the mayor of Arlon in Belgium to break off its relationship as the "twin" town of Hayanges after seven decades, an early taste of bad publicity for the FN.

Further south, where the FN won in nine towns, mayors face similar economic problems compounded by tensions between white residents and those with origins in France's former colonies.

In Beaucaire, a mediaeval town of 16,000 about one hour's drive west of Marseille, the centre is largely inhabited by descendants of North African immigrants who came to France as agricultural labourers, while white locals have moved out.

As jobs in industry and agriculture grew scarce, property prices in the town plummeted. Now shops that once dotted its 15th century streets are boarded up, and high-ceilinged manors where nobles once entertained their guests sell for under 150,000 euros - less than a studio apartment in central Paris.

Beaucaire's 28-year-old FN mayor Julien Sanchez has promised to crack down on the drug dealers posted at many street corners and bring tourist money back to the town centre, arguing that too many kebab shops have obscured Beaucaire's roots.

But any investment will have to be made without help from regional authorities at a time when the town's income from taxes is falling and Sanchez is bound by a promise to keep them low.

In some towns, the arrival of FN mayors has already brought latent tensions into the open.

Hours after a 26-year-old FN mayor was elected in the Mediterranean town of Frejus, North Africans protested at the party's office under the watch of riot police. FN offices were attacked in Hayange and a town hall in Cogolin, another southern town.

"What people discovered in the 1990s was that the FN was a party that brought problems - not solutions or miracles," said Dominique Reynie, head of the FONDAPOL political think tank.

"They need to overcome that image, and with ideology largely out of the question, the only path left is good housekeeping." ($1 = 0.7256 Euros) (editing by Mark John and David Stamp)

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