Far right National Front no longer a spent force as charismatic leader tones down some of its policies.

France heads to the polls this weekend in council elections that will provide a benchmark of voter hostility to mainstream parties at a time of deepening national gloom and a resurgent far-right.

Voters will be called out in a two-stage election across the country, where the mood has been darkened by an atmospheric pollution alert, a sickly economy and escalating worries about the crisis in the Crimea.

Conventional wisdom has it that municipal elections in France are settled by local issues and personalities - woe betide any rural mayor who, in the election runup, fails to show up for aperitifs with the village hunting association, or the leader of a small town who neglects to look active about tackling bike thefts.

This is the case in Paris, the epicentre of a smog alert that has affected much of France. Quality of life is the hot issue in the race between Socialist deputy mayor Anne Hidalgo and Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, a conservative former environment minister.


But, exceptionally, national politics has muscled its way into many campaigns, and the big parties are running scared.

Grassroots socialists are terrified that animosity for President Francois Hollande, whose popularity has reached a record low for any head of state in modern French history, will poison their chances. Local councillors for the conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) dread the fallout from the party's shenanigans at national level, where it is in opposition. The party's darling, former president Nicolas Sarkozy, is in a deep mess over financial and corruption scandals dating from his time in office, and the "barons" who have emerged from his shadows are fighting over his succession.

That leaves the far-right National Front (FN) sensing a breakthrough in high-unemployment, high-immigration areas where it feels its pitch has the most effect.

Seven years ago, the National Front was deemed by many to be a spent force. It had reached a nadir, driven there by its leader Jean-Marie Le Pen's bar-room brawler reputation for attacks on immigrants and Jews.

But things started to change in 2011, when Le Pen handed the reins to his daughter Marine Le Pen. Televisual and moderate-sounding, she sought to restyle the party as a nationalist, anti-European Union "France-first" group cleansed of xenophobic taint.

In the 2012 presidential elections, she picked up 17.9 per cent of the vote, winning over many the old guard who feared she would never be able to step into her father's shoes. For the council elections, her party has expelled candidates deemed overtly racist and brought in several candidates from ethnic minorities, a move critics derided as tokenism. Her 85-year-old father, seen by strategists as an electoral liability to the party's makeover, is taking a more distant role.

Bolstered by defections from the UMP but also from the socialists and the communists, helped by the depressed economy and a deepening public scorn for the political elite, the FN is gaining ground through classic grassroots tactics, by distributing leaflets and knocking on doors.

In the elections it will field party lists in 597 councils compared with only 119 in 2008. "The FN is like a mobile phone operator, extending its coverage bit by bit," the conservative news weekly Le Point commented.

There can be no better time for a protest vote. An opinion poll published by the survey firm CSA on Tuesday found 46 per cent of respondents were "disgusted" with the mainstream parties, and 30 per cent said this resentment would be a factor in their choice on polling day. Previous surveys have found that nearly a third would vote for the FN.

To put things into perspective, though, the FN is only contesting around a fifth of all the councils in France, and a two-round voting system - with a runoff a week later between the two leading lists if no one gains an outright majority in the first poll - limits its chances of wresting outright control of a council.

But analysts say there is plenty of potential for a shock, starting with the FN's share of the vote if turnout is poor.

There are good prospects of victory in Frejus, on the Cote d'Azur, where the right wing is divided, and in Henin-Beaumont, in the northern rustbelt region of the Pas-de-Calais, where one of the party leaders, Steeve Brois is a councillor and leftwing parties are squabbling and weakened by a corruption scandal.

Either of these wins would give the FN a historic foothold in local administration and help it to distance itself further from its pariah status. It would also enable the party to declare it has broken the pendulum swing between socialists and conservatives.

"This election is the first in a series which must drive us, and I say it with conviction, to Marine Le Pen's election victory [for the presidency] in 2017," Jean-Marie Le Pen told cheering supporters last week.

Sounding the alarm bells, France's League for Human Rights (LDH) distributed leaflets in Henin-Beaumont, urging voters not to vote for the FN.

"Do you really think that Henin-Beaumont deserves to branded as FN?" the leaflets asked.

"Henin-Beaumont is not an extremist town."