France's Far Right on the Rise Ahead of EU Vote

By Elaine Ganley

PARIS (AP) -- For the National Front party, French towns should look French. That means no more new mosques or kebab shops.

The anti-immigration party is striving to be France's big winner in European Parliament elections next weekend and its leader has been ramping up the rhetoric, describing her appeal as patriotic rather than extremist.

"We want to be the masters in our countries," Marine Le Pen said. "The Austrians want to be the masters of Austria, the French want to be masters in France, the Belgians masters in Belgium, and this is perfectly legitimate."

The National Front, which also wants to unravel the European Union and withdraw France from the euro currency, hopes to win up to 20 of France's 74 European Parliament seats in the Sunday, May 25 vote. It currently holds just two seats, but polls show it running neck-and-neck with the conservative UMP party and well ahead of the governing Socialists.

The party's agenda is already being imposed in some French towns following the election this spring of 11 National Front mayors, including Julien Sanchez, who has taken charge in the debt-ridden southern town of Beaucaire. Once a prosperous trade route on the Rhone River, today Beaucaire's ancient stone center is in disrepair and its unemployment runs at 20 percent, double the national rate.

"We must give this town a traditional look. ... Tourists want to see a Provencal town," he said in an interview. "They don't want to see a town full of shops with others' customs. We will block this kind of commerce." He said police would patrol the kebab shops already present to ensure they aren't a cover for what he called "dishonest" activity, such as drug sales.

Since donning the tricolor mayoral sash last month, the 31-year-old Sanchez has budgeted for three more police officers and spent 2,000 euros ($2,750) to save the town's stray cats from euthanasia.

And Sanchez is keeping the EU flag flying atop the town hall so as not to "create arguments" - even as he helps his party's candidate, Louis Aliot, seek election to the European Parliament.

But his approach has a harder edge that mirrors the National Front's call to protect the French identity. In his city, which has a large Muslim community, that means barring more shops selling kebabs, a Middle Eastern-style sandwich, from opening in a central square dominated by derelict storefronts.

Elsewhere, the National Front mayors of Henin-Beaumont in the north and Frejus on the Riviera have lowered the EU flags at their city halls.

In Mantes-la-Ville west of Paris, Mayor Cyril Nauth is trying to block the construction of a new mosque for local Muslims, who represent around a third of the town's 20,000 residents.

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© 2014 The Associated Press

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