Le Pen's far right eyes gains in depressed French north

French National Front political party leader Marine Le Pen gestures at a political rally as she campaigns for regional elections in Calais, France, October 2, 2015. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

By Ingrid Melander DENAIN, France (Reuters) - The northern French town of Denain has been a left-wing bastion for generations. Not any more. The feeling that mainstream politicians have failed runs high amid the 20,000 inhabitants of a place where the poverty rate, as measured by income, is three times the national average. "Everybody's fed up. There is record-high unemployment, the region is really poor, it's getting worse and worse. So people think: why not the National Front?" retired truck driver Philippe Broutard said as he distributed leaflets for the far-right party in the depressed former mining town. The temptation to vote for the anti-Europe, anti-immigration National Front (FN) in regional elections in Denain goes well beyond party activists. "The right did not work, the left did not work. There's a third option, why not try it?" Red Cross volunteer Pascal Fremaux said of the FN during a coffee break at the aid group's Denain premises, where food parcels are handed out. "We have so many problems that maybe it won't improve things either, but at least people will have tried that option too." Northern France has long been a stronghold of President Francois Hollande's Socialist party, which now run both Denain and the wider region. But Denain is just one of the towns where voters who feel left out are threatening to turn politics upside down by switching to the FN, shunning both the Socialists and the conservative Republicans led by former president Nicolas Sarkozy. Opinion polls suggest FN chief Marine Le Pen, the top candidate on the party's ticket in northern France, will win the first round of the December election and probably also the second round, in which the top candidates face off. In elections to the European Parliament last year, in which the FN beat both the Socialists and the centre-right, Le Pen attracted nearly twice the level of support in Denain that she won in France overall. She sees the upcoming regional vote as a springboard for the 2017 presidential election. BOARDED-UP SHOPS After succeeding her father as party leader in 2011, Le Pen has strived to shed the FN's anti-Semitic image and re-position it as offering ordinary citizens protection against the economic fallout from globalization. Her father, Jean-Marie, supported economically liberal policies in favor of small business. "For public services, it's Marine," reads one of the posters on display in Denain. "It's possible to bring unemployment down," say the leaflets distributed at the market. This strikes a chord in a town where paint peels off the traditional brick houses, shuttered shops scar the main street and close to one in three people are unemployed, nearly three times the national average. The jobless rate in Denain rose from 25.2 percent in 2007 to 31.2 percent in 2012, the last year for which official data from a national census is available at a local level. In the rest of France it grew from 11.0 to 12.7 percent in the same period, the data show. Economic activity is so subdued that a visiting reporter found most streets empty in the middle of the day. Denain's woes date back to the time when the once-prosperous coal mines started shutting in the late 1970s. When the 2008 global financial crisis started biting, the situation worsened, Red Cross volunteers said, judging by the diminishing income of those who knock at their door and the growing numbers of youngsters among them. Over the past six months, pensioners have started asking for help too, exacerbating the feeling that the town is being left behind. Authorities are trying to haul Denain out of its gloom, including by building a slick new tram line to nearby Valenciennes, in a bid to end its economic isolation. The state has agreed tax breaks for firms that set up here. "The city is changing," said Houria Selama Belhadad, the head of a local organization that teaches immigrants to read and write in a newly refurbished neighborhood. Mayor Anne-Lise Dufour-Tonini, a Socialist who also represents the town in parliament, makes much of her plans to attract new businesses to replace those that left vast, empty warehouses rusting quietly away right in the town center. But she acknowledges that this may not be enough to soothe voters. "People realize that we politicians could suffer to see someone like her (Le Pen) win ... It's a protest vote," she said. "WE TRIED EVERYTHING ELSE" The FN's rise in Denain is representative of the party's growing popularity in small towns, the countryside and amongst workers, while people in large cities and wealthier voters have proved more difficult to convert. Nationwide, the older generation has tended to resist the FN's overtures, although in Denain pensioners joined students and workers handing out the party's election leaflets. Several said that a few years ago, when the party was led by Le Pen's maverick father Jean-Marie, they would not have openly shown their political colors. But there was no sign of protest as the group walked through a street market. Beyond Denain's Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie region, the FN hopes to win in another three or four of the country's re-designed 13 regions. Opinion polls show Hollande's Socialists, who now govern most regions, heading for an election rout, with Sarkozy's Republicans hoping for another victory after winning a previous round of local elections in March. In a telling sign of the growing appeal of the anti-immigration FN, Zyrg, a carpet seller of North African origin, said he too would vote for Le Pen despite his misgivings. "We've tried everything else. Nothing worked," he said. (Additional reporting by Pascal Rossignol; Editing by Andrew Callus and Mark Trevelyan)