By Nicholas Vinocur
PARIS (Reuters) - A candidate for the far-right National Front has been banned from its election ticket for belittling the Holocaust, another sign of racism in its ranks jeopardizing its bid to enter town halls across France in next year's local elections.
Joris Hanser, 20, from the eastern town of Rixheim, was the latest to be dropped by Marine Le Pen's party after local media exposed comments he posted on social media making light of the Nazi mass murder of Jews, a crime in France.
Another National Front candidate was barred last month for comparing France's black justice minister to a monkey. A third candidate of Algerian origin quit the party this week after alleging that one National Front official had told her that she and her children should be "put in an oven".
Polls show the FN gaining ground against Socialist and center-right rivals in the town hall elections next March at a time when France's economic difficulties and disillusionment with mainstream parties are deepening.
One poll also showed Le Pen's party winning more votes than any other in European Parliament elections two months later.
Its strong survey showing has prompted Le Pen, who has sought to build a more mainstream image for the party than it had under her father Jean-Marie, to predict that it could win up to one thousand counselor posts in town halls across the country, plus take overall control in at least 10 town halls.
But analysts said the repeated scandals over unfit candidates already suggest the National Front is struggling to find ones able to credibly project the party's new image.
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"Their real issue is finding candidates," said Jean-Francois Doridot, an analyst at pollster Ipsos. "They don't have enough people, so they are less scrupulous about background checks, even if they immediately ban candidates exposed as racist."
Legal obligations to field equal numbers of female candidates as male ones has caused further problems in a traditionally male-dominated party, he added.
Marine Le Pen's image revamp has helped the National Front gain wider acceptance in Brignoles, a town in Provence in the south where its candidate won a by-election last month.
Yet Le Pen herself fuelled debate about alleged bias when she questioned beards and scarves worn by four French hostages on their homecoming last week after three years as hostages of Islamist militants. She later said the quip was "unfortunate".
Some critics argue that while Le Pen has cleared bigots from her party's leadership, its members have changed little overall from the time when her father, Jean-Marie, ran the party until 2010.
Harry Roselmack, the first black man to host nightly news on French public television, argues that various incidents - such as when children waved bananas at Justice Minister Christiane Taubira and insulted her on a visit to the city of Angers - point to creeping racism in a society increasingly confused about its identity.
"They are not slips of the tongue; they are the unvarnished expression of a world view widely shared in the National Front," he wrote in an op-ed published last week in Le Monde daily.
"While it's false to say that all National Front supporters and officials are racist, it is just as false to say there is no racism in this party: racism and xenophobia are the cement that keeps it together."
(Additional reporting by Marine Pennetier; and Guillaume Series in Toulouse, editing by Mark Heinrich)