What rising gay support means for France's far-right National Front
Front National (FN) party president Marine Le Pen (L) and member of Parliament Gilbert Collard (R) take part in a Unity rally on January 11, 2015 in Beaucaire (AFP)

Sebastien Chenu, a former gay activist, does not seem a typical member of France's far-right National Front (FN), a party accused of deeply reactionary views with a history of homophobia.

"The National Front is the only party whose leader is a woman and its deputy leader is gay," he points out over a glass of Chablis in Beauvais, the northern town where he is standing as a candidate in local elections this week.

Despite opposing same-sex marriage and touting traditional family values, Chenu says the FN under leader Marine Le Pen is actually more open to minorities than mainstream parties.

"Marine Le Pen represents a sort of absolute freedom in a political world that is very policed, where everyone resembles each other. She has come in and shaken things up," he says.

But it is not long into talking with Chenu that the limits of that freedom become apparent.

Asked about Muslims and Roma migrants, Chenu quickly reverts to common FN tropes.

Roma "poison the daily life of Parisians"; immigrants "reproduce cultures that destabilise areas of towns... It's not for us to integrate them, it's for them to assimilate themselves," he says.

Gay support for the FN is rising: a recent Ifop poll showed 26 percent of homosexuals in Paris supported the party, compared with 16 percent of heterosexuals.

The presence of several gays in Le Pen's entourage, including deputy leader Florian Philippot, marks a sharp change from the days of her father and predecessor, Jean-Marie, who was known for phrases like: "homosexuality... constitutes a biological and social anomaly."

But that has less to do with a more open attitude to minorities in the FN than the emergence of more racist attitudes among parts of the gay community, says author Didier Lestrade, who has written a book on the subject.

"The LGBT community was always rooted in diversity, but recently racism has come out in the open and we see more and more LGBT people seduced by the FN," he says.

Lestrade blames fear-mongering among parts of the gay community, particularly towards Muslims for their perceived homophobia.

But he agrees with Chenu that a closeted political establishment has pushed homosexuals towards fringe parties.

"The paradoxical situation is that the National Front is one of the few places where homosexuality is not an obstacle."

And as one gay activist, waiting to heckle Le Pen at a recent campaign rally, told AFP: "LGBT have diverse political opinions. They can be just as stupid as anyone else."

- Two parties in one -

The shift in attitude towards gays is one part of the "de-diabolisation" (detoxification) campaign launched by Marine Le Pen since she took over the party in 2011, seeking to make the party a more palatable alternative to the discredited mainstream.

It helped lead the FN to first place in last year's European elections and a quarter of the votes in the first round of last week's local polls.

But the cautious marketing has left voters uncertain about what exactly would happen if Le Pen went all the way to the presidential palace in 2017.

Part of the confusion stems from the fact the FN is now two parties in one, says political scientist Thomas Guenole.

Marine Le Pen represents a faction that focuses on economic and political issues, such as pulling out of the euro.

But the other faction still exists -- an old guard of "xenophobes, racists, anti-Semites and misogynists," says Guenole.

They are held together by agreement on the fundamentals: slashing immigration and getting tough on crime by building more prisons and reimposing capital punishment.

"It's not a neo-Nazi party, but it is a nationalist, sovereigntist, protectionist and anti-system party that would reclaim all authority and power for the central French state, and defend the interests and citizens it designates as truly French," says Guenole.

- 'Don't make waves' -

As for areas it already controls, the FN has been careful "not to make waves," says Guenole.

"(FN) mayors make sure walls are painted, sidewalks paved, flowers bloom in public gardens and spots are available in day care centres."

That has been slightly undermined by one FN-linked mayor, Robert Menard, who has done things like ban spitting and the hanging of clothes to dry from windows -- considered by some to be African-Arab habits -- as well as equipping local police with guns.

But some say the FN will never get beyond these kind of symbolic gestures.

"Cutting immigration, restricting aid to only French people, stripping naturalised people of citizenship and deporting people they don't want -- it's hard to imagine how they could push such laws through," Nonna Mayer, a specialist on far-right movements, said.

"The FN is nowhere near to taking national power. Yes, she's had recent successes... (but) it's mad to imagine Marine Le Pen in the Elysee."