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Far-right sets sights on European Parliament

Wednesday - 4/2/2014, 6:13pm  ET

FILE - In this Nov. 13, 2013 file photo, France's Marine Le Pen, leader of the French National Front, left, and fellow Eurosceptic Geert Wilders of Netherlands, right, deliver a statement during a press conference in The Hague, Netherlands. France's far-right National Front party, coming off an historic electoral victory at home, is marching on toward a bigger target: the European Parliament. Party chief Marine Le Pen is leading the charge for continent-wide elections next month like the general of a conquering army, and hoping to bring kindred parties around Europe with her. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File)

ELAINE GANLEY
Associated Press

PARIS (AP) -- France's far-right National Front, coming off a historic electoral victory at home, is marching toward a new target: the European Parliament.

Party chief Marine Le Pen is leading the charge for continent-wide elections next month like the general of a conquering army, and hoping to attract kindred parties around Europe in a broad alliance.

As the extreme right rises across Europe, Le Pen wants to seize the momentum -- raising the voice of her anti-immigration National Front and amplifying it through a broad parliamentary group. These parties, leveraging public frustration with the EU, want to weaken the bloc's power over European citizens from within Europe's premier legislative institution.

"My goal is to be first" in France's vote for the European Parliament, "to raise the conscience over what the European Union is making our country live through," she said on French television the morning after her party won a dozen town halls and more than 1,000 city and town council seats in municipal elections.

The voting for the 751-seat European Parliament, based in Strasbourg in eastern France, takes place in each of the EU's 28 member states, stretching over four days beginning May 22. Even if far-right groups expand their presence in Parliament, they're unlikely to break the mainstream majority, and their divergent nationalist agendas may clash with each other on the legislative floor.

The European Parliament was long derided as a mere talking shop, but it has steadily gained power in recent years and its approval is now needed for all major EU legislation -- from financial market regulation to agricultural policies or decisions on how big warning signs on cigarette packs have to be. But the European Parliament falls short of the clout of national legislatures in two important ways: Its lawmakers cannot propose new laws and it has only limited say over the EU's budget.

Le Pen's main goal is to use larger numbers in parliament to shift the political discourse toward far-right complaints and establish a long-term foothold.

Europe's economic downturn has fueled populist parties of all stripes across the continent, from the United Kingdom Independence Party, known as UKIP, to Greece's Golden Dawn. But it's not all about the economy: Europeans are in the grips of a chronic identity crisis fed by immigration, largely from former European colonies.

"The multicultural question, the question of the transformation of the European cultural landscape, notably with the arrival of a Muslim population," said far-right expert Jean-Yves Camus, weigh as heavily on Europe's anxieties as economic frustrations.

Le Pen regularly denounces what she calls the EU's rule by "diktat." And she bemoans the perceived consequences of the bloc's single market and open frontiers: high unemployment, plunging purchasing power, unfair trade competition and a general loss of sovereignty.

In a heated TV debate Wednesday night, UKIP leader Nigel Farage -- whose party holds nine of Britain's 73 seats in the European Parliament -- warned Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg the EU risked breaking up "very unpleasantly" if it doesn't dissolve democratically.

"If you take away from people their ability through the ballot box to change their future because they have given away control of everything to somebody else, I'm afraid they tend to resort to unpleasant means," Farage said, warning of protests and the rise of neo-Nazis. Clegg responded that the EU of the future would be "quite similar" to today's EU with trade remaining "at the absolute heart" of it.

The National Front currently holds three seats in the European Parliament, with Le Pen and her father, party founder Jean Marie Le Pen, holding two of them. She hopes to boost the National Front's European parliamentary presence.

She won't give a target figure for seats but experts say the National Front could get up to 20 deputies in the European voting, and foresee strong performances from other European extreme-right parties.

After the National Front's success in France's local elections, Italian Premier Matteo Renzi warned that "Europe needs to be aware of the widespread sense of contestation and anti-politics" -- and should put growth and fighting joblessness at the center of policymaking.

Like the National Front, numerous other far-right parties also target Muslims. They claim that Islamic immigrants stream into their countries to abuse social services and supplant Western culture.

Le Pen wants to rally far-right parties around a common anti-EU stance -- and create a parliamentary grouping that gives the rightists clout. Groups in the European Parliament receive funding for staff and obtain privileges, from the right to chair committees to more speaking time.

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