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Among voters - even immigrants - French far right's message resonates

The far-right, anti-immigration National Front looks to benefit from voter discontent - and the January terrorist attacks - in French local elections. Elizabeth Bryant reports from Champigny-sur-Marne.

Virginie Recher wears a big smile and a thick coat against the morning chill as she pushes flyers to anyone who will take them: men in jogging suits, harried mothers and a few retirees who pause to chat.

A few rebuff the glossy leaflets of her National Front party. "Certainly not," says one woman marching past. But a Moroccan woman wearing a headscarf thanks her, and tucks the paper into her shopping cart.

It's market day in this gritty neighborhood perched high on a hillside of Champigny, a working-class Paris suburb. Along with stalls piled high with vegetables, pots and clothes are candidates representing every color of France's political kaleidoscope. On the eve of France's departmental or local elections - and amid fears of high abstention rates - every vote counts.

In some ways, this bleak housing project is ground zero for the far-right National Front party as it battles not only for departmental seats but also for legitimacy. Whether its anti-immigration, anti-Europe message can resonate in places like Champigny, with high foreign populations and leftist local government, will help power the party's surge ahead of regional elections later this year - and the presidential vote in 2017.

Virginie Recher handing out flyers in the Bois-L'Abbe area of Champigny

Virginie Recher is hopeful the Front National will do well

"The possibility that they can even win one of these departments is very slim," because of the two-round nature of the elections, says Jean-Yves Camus, am expert on the far right. "But the most important topic for the National Front is not how many seats they will win but how many votes they will get. And how many more votes than the (center-right, mainstream) UMP party."

Recher is more optimistic. "Why not?" she says of chances of winning not only in Champigny but the larger Val de Marne department it belongs to. "But even if the National Front scores well in the Val de Marne, that would be good."

A different France

Across the country, the Front is riding a wave of voter discontent with mainstream parties - the same discontent that saw it win last year's parliamentary elections with 25 percent of the vote. January's terrorist attacks in Paris have only helped to sell its hard-line message, analysts say.

"There is now a feeling of uneasiness about the possibility of another terrorist attack and about Islam in this country," Camus says. "I don't think we can speak yet about a wave of xenophobia, but people are more receptive to the National Front's rhetoric on immigration."

Earlier this month, France's Prime Minister Manuel Valls warned the Front's leader Marine Le Pen could even become president - although a number of analysts dismiss the scenario as unlikely. But some, like Camus, suggest she could score well in a runoff, strengthening the Front's political credibility.

Marine Le Pen

Marine Le Pen appears to be a contender for the French presidency

In Champigny, Recher says people who once shunned the Front a few years ago are now more receptive - including the many North and sub-Saharan Africans who live here.

"They came to France years ago because they were sold a dream, they came here to work," she says. "They say this isn't the France they knew when they came here."

Recher says she's not against immigration, but France simply can't take in more foreigners. "We don't have any more place for them," she says. "There's no more housing. There's no more work. Let's take care of the people who are here."

Immigrants for the Front

Those arguments resonate with locals like Smail Mazouni and Farid Ben Ali, discussing the upcoming elections just across the street.

"Honestly, there are times when I've been tempted to vote for the National Front," says Mazouni, who is unemployed and whose parents, like those of Ben Ali, come from Algeria's eastern Kabilya region. "Coming from me - someone with Algerian origins - that's serious. But when you look at the Socialists and the UMP, they're all the same. They don't talk about real problems, like jobs, housing and health."

Adding to its appeal, the Front is also fielding candidates with immigrant backgrounds, analyst Camus says. "Even people from North Africa," he adds, "the very minority the National Front wants to get rid of."

A man passes out UMP flyers

Every vote counts in this election

But for many here, the Front is not the solution.

"I'm just doing my shopping of flyers," says Jean-Francois Dupont, a stocky man who accepted one of Recher's handouts. "But I vote for the left. I fight against the National Front. "

Haitian mother of two, Marie Aime, is also against the Front - although she says she understands why people vote for the party.

"I'm a foreigner, and its program threatens foreigners like me," she says. "People want change, but if the National Front takes power it will be like all the rest."

But some things have changed, she adds with a smile. "Many French think that France must be white. But sorry, it's not white anymore."

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