By Ingrid Melander
MARSEILLE, France (Reuters) - France's far-right National Front, buoyed by improving poll numbers, is aiming for big gains in municipal elections next year and the top spot in the European parliament ballot, its leaders said at the party's annual convention.
The two 2014 elections, the first since the Socialists came to power in 2012, are set to dominate the political agenda in the euro zone's second-largest country for the next nine months.
In a strategic shift for a party long content with winning protest votes in national polls, the National Front says it wants to rule the country one day and start building a local base in the March municipal ballot - ambitions that are a growing headache for mainstream parties.
"Our strategy is to win as many municipalities as possible and get hundreds of city councilors elected to be there for the long run. It's a condition for winning at the national level and the presidency," party leader Marine Le Pen told reporters at the weekend convention in Marseille.
"We have every reason to work with enthusiasm because we'll be in power in the next ten years," said the 45-year-old, who replaced her paratrooper father as party chief in 2011.
The party has a long way to go before it could be included in a government, but opinion polls show it is gaining ground as both the Socialists and the main conservative opposition UMP agonize over how to counter the far right and appeal to voters.
More than a third of French voters say they are sympathetic to the ideas of the party, whose agenda focuses on immigration, Europe and security and on the failures of mainstream politicians, a survey showed earlier this week.
The UMP, already deeply divided since Nicolas Sarkozy lost the 2012 presidential election, is shaken by near-daily rows over whether to veer more towards the National Front's agenda. A growing number of UMP supporters want to pursue alliances with the party on a municipal level, long considered a taboo move.
For the Socialists, who devoted part of their own summer convention last month to a debate over the role of the National Front, the popularity of its anti-austerity, anti-EU stance is a headache at a time when President Francois Hollande must rein in budget deficits. Hollande's popularity is at record lows for this stage in his presidential term.
Some 16 percent of those surveyed in a CSA poll plan to vote for National Front candidates in the municipal polls, the survey showed on Friday, four points more than six months ago.
All in all, the National Front hopes to see 1,000 to 1,500 candidates elected to city councils, its secretary general Steeve Briois told Reuters.
Although the number is a small share of France's more than 36,000 municipalities and the party is unlikely to win a majority in many city councils, it would be a big increase from the 60 won in the last municipal elections in 2008.
The party has even more ambitious plans for the May European Parliament elections. Eurosceptic, nationalistic parties traditionally do well in the poll, a growing worry for mainstream parties throughout Europe as frustration over austerity mounts.
"We can be first in the European elections, I'm certain about that," Briois told Reuters with a wide smile.
"The issues discussed in this election are the ones we've always focused on," he said, citing the impact of European integration on immigration, security and jobs.
French academic Sylvain Crepon, an expert on the National Front, says that while the party is aiming for incremental increases in municipal seats in order to progressively build credibility on the ground, it has a shot at an outright victory in the EU vote.
"It can play on the protest vote, in a context of doubt about the EU and the euro," he said. "It could become, just for this election, symbolically, the first party of France, or the second. That would be a thunderbolt."
Once famous for Jean-Marie Le Pen's outbursts on immigration and anti-Semitic remarks, the party has worked to spruce up its image since his daughter took the helm.
But despite the media-friendly, open attitude and the youth of many supporters who chat in the alleys around the convention site in Marseille, the party's agenda remains essentially unchanged.
Briois and others said in Marseille they support ending subsidies to local NGOs which help the Roma people or serve halal meals, for instance. And Marine Le Pen's platform for the 2012 presidential election included the idea of giving "national priority" for French citizens, code for giving benefits only to families who have at least one French parent.
Jean-Marie Le Pen got hundreds cheering and clapping with a speech on Saturday when he denounced immigration and Islamism as "fatal scourges" for France.
(Additional reporting by Jean-Francois Rosnoblet in Marseille and Leigh Thomas in Paris; Writing by Ingrid Melander and Sonya Hepinstall)