By Gerard Bon and Ingrid Melander
PARIS (Reuters) - France's far-right National Front will launch a campaign to woo Muslim voters in Paris' depressed suburbs in December regional elections, according to its lead candidate in the Ile-de-France region which includes the capital.
The National Front (FN), which polls say could win around 20 percent of the region's votes, up from 9 percent in 2010, will send specially designed election leaflets by post to inhabitants of those housing projects, with a special message designed to win Muslim voters over to the party, Wallerand de Saint-Just told Reuters.
That may seem counter-intuitive for an anti-immigration party whose leader, Marine Le Pen, will go on trial later this month for comparing Muslim street prayers to wartime Nazi occupation.
But it represents just the latest step in the party's self-declared strategy to "de-demonize" its image.
"We decided we should send a message to our Muslim compatriots," Wallerand said in an interview. "We're perfectly capable of having a message for all populations of Ile-de-France."
Under veteran leader and founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, the FN was content to be a protest party. Since taking over in 2011, his daughter Marine has sought to widen its appeal.
The party came first in European parliament elections last year. It has reached out to teachers, intellectuals and students in its efforts to look more mainstream.
Now Muslim voters are the target.
What will the message be? "We'll tell them that they are as French as the others," the former lawyer said, "and that they must respect French-style secularism."
While getting stronger in small towns and the countryside, the FN is still struggling to make a breakthrough in large cities like Paris.
It is hoping people in under-privileged suburbs will be attracted by its campaigning on law and order and on protectionist economic policies, boosting its overall result in the region - one of 13 in mainland France.
An Odoxa opinion poll at the weekend forecast the FN would attract 20 percent of the vote in the first round on Dec. 6 in Ile-de-France, well behind Nicolas Sarkozy's Republicans, but not far behind the Socialists, who now rule the Paris region but would get only 24 percent.
The FN would fall behind in the second round on Dec. 13, for which all three will strike alliances with smaller parties, but it would get representatives in the 208-strong regional assembly provided it meets the 10 percent first-round threshold it fell short of in 2010.
"I think it's a clever marketing positioning for the FN," Odoxa chief Gael Sliman said. "It's a way of saying they are not xenophobic or racist."
The party is still struggling in the suburbs, he said. "But they start from such a low point that even without a big score they can make progress."
Wallerand is under formal investigation by judges looking into the party's 2012 presidential campaign financing. He denies any wrongdoing.
(Reporting by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Andrew Callus/Ruth Pitchford)