By Ingrid Melander
MARSEILLE, France (Reuters) - Gangland killings in broad daylight on the streets of Marseille, and the apparent inability of authorities to do anything about it, have handed France's National Front a dream springboard from which to launch its far-right agenda.
France's second largest city, notorious in the 1960s as a link in the "French Connection" which funneled heroin from Turkey to Europe and the United States, has been hit this year by a spate of drug-related murders.
"The gangrene of crime is spreading through France," warned National Front (FN) leader Marine Le Pen, who chose the Mediterranean port city as the venue for the party's annual meeting this month.
"Marseille is not the exception - it's the shape of things to come," she told the party faithful.
Designated by the European Union as a 2013 "European Capital of Culture", Marseille is actually seeing something of a renaissance as its refurbished docks and a museum of Mediterranean civilization pull in ever more tourists.
The city of 850,000 has become a hub for the cruise sector, and expects to handle one million passengers this year, up from just over 120,000 fifteen years ago. Tax incentives have encouraged start-ups and unemployment has nearly halved in two decades to slightly above the national average of 10.9 percent.
But it is Marseille's crime troubles that continue to grab national headlines. While violent crime measured per head of the population is not significantly more widespread than in Paris, the use of Kalashnikovs and other war arms smuggled out of the Balkans and other former conflict zones has shocked many.
There have already been 15 gangland killings in and around Marseille this year, around the same level as last year.
President Francois Hollande's ruling Socialists and the main conservative opposition UMP party - which runs Marseille city hall - blame each other for the failure to halt the violence, a squabbling that plays into the hands of the National Front.
The anti-immigrant, anti-EU party is confident it can use next March's municipal elections to embed its officials in town halls across France with the message that France's main parties do not address the concerns of ordinary French people.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Marseille's narcotics business was largely run by well-organized Corsican gangs. Since then, much of the activity has transferred to hashish and cocaine and is now in the hands of smaller, more disperse groups of youths in the poor, immigrant-heavy northern suburbs.
The FN's proposals to combat crime - including kicking out immigrant delinquents and hiring more police - resonate with some in the city. Others argue it ignores signs of buoyancy in the local economy and the fact most types of crime are falling.
"They kill each other to fight over (drug) territories," said Jean-Luc Chauvin, head of the local employers' federation.
"It's sad but it doesn't affect the average citizen or businesses."
Many residents say Marseille's problems stem from the split between the affluent palm tree-lined southern neighborhoods by the sea and the concrete-jungle northern districts where most immigrants of North African origin live - a stark reminder of France's wider struggle to integrate such communities.
Mohammed Bensaada, a volunteer youth worker in the northern suburb of Busserine, gave the example of an engineering graduate from the area who remains unemployed a year after getting out of school - which Bensaada suspects is due to employers shying away from candidates with immigrant family names or a home address in the "wrong" part of town.
The anecdote reflects a view among many in Marseille that authorities are ignoring underlying social inequalities they believe drive young people to seek a life in crime.
"Police raids only treat the symptom - it's like saying you've got cancer but I'll treat you for your cough," said Bensaada. "But it won't cure you."
The debate feeds into the National Front's plans to win municipal positions by tuning in to widespread public concerns over crime in Marseille and elsewhere.
After a jeweler in the Riviera city of Nice shot dead a robber who raided his store this month, more than a million people signed up to an Internet campaign to demand that homicide charges against him be dropped, in an example of the level of public frustration over the issue.
At present the FN has 60 officials sitting on town councils in France's 36,000 municipalities, but the party is confident it will end up with over 1,000 after the March elections.
A survey this month by pollster IFOP showed just over a third of French voters are sympathetic to its ideas, with popularity growing among conservative voters. Another survey showed the FN gathering a quarter of the vote in Marseille.
The focus on local elections is a shift for the party, which has since the late 1990s aimed to capture the protest vote at national elections, such as when founder and former FN leader Jean-Marie Le Pen came second in the 2002.
That was a high point, after which support declined until Le Pen handed over its leadership to his trained lawyer daughter.
France's mainstream parties are increasingly worried about the FN ahead of the elections. The opposition conservative UMP, in particular, is deeply divided over its stance towards the FN.
UMP ex-Prime Minister Francois Fillon triggered a party row this month by refusing to rule out possible local alliances between the UMP and the FN - a breach in the party's existing policy of having nothing to do with them.
"We will get an army of local councilors," FN Secretary-General Steeve Briois told Reuters on the sidelines of the Marseille convention.
"2014 will mark the start of our re-conquest."
(Additional reporting by Jean-Francois Rosnoblet; Editing by Mark John and Sonya Hepinstall)