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Marine Le Pen, French National Front (FN) political party leader and candidate for French 2017 presidential election, attends a political rally in Saint-Herblain near Nantes, France, February 26, 2017. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe(reuters_tickers)
By Johnny Cotton
Plesse, France (Reuters) - France's presidential pretenders will this week make mandatory campaign stops at the annual Paris farm fair as polls show farmers increasingly tempted by the far-right's Marine Le Pen when they even bother to vote at all.
Though only a fraction of the population still works in the farm sector, voters remain attached to the country's agrarian roots, making the annual agriculture fair a fixture of the political calendar.
"Lots of us farmers are pinning our hopes on Marine," dairy and poultry farmer Mickael Thomas said as he set up for the nine-day-long show. "We see her with farmers more than other candidates."
Polls now show Le Pen placing first in a first round of France's presidential election in April and losing in the second round to a single candidate from the centre-left or centre-right.
But that race has tightened, raising the prospect that the National Front leader could become the first far-right politician to win power through the ballot box in Western Europe since World War Two.
Le Pen was due on Tuesday to start the parade of politicians at the fair as the first major candidate to visit this year.
After years of crisis in the sector and perceived indifference from other candidates, Le Pen's anti-EU anti-globalisation rhetoric strikes a chord with many farmers, once faithful voters for mainstream conservatives.
A Cevipof poll for Le Monde newspaper published on Feb. 16 showed that 35 percent of farmers who plan to vote will back Le Pen in the election, compared to 26 percent of the general population. Conservative Francois Fillon and centrist Emmanuel Macron are both on 20 percent among farmers, close to their ratings overall.
The same poll also showed farmers are increasingly giving up on politicians altogether, with 51 percent of the 300 surveyed saying they would not vote.
"Farmers were always the French people who voted the most. They voted like they went to mass," said sociologist Francois Purseigle. "What's surprising about this survey is that they might not go."
The mascot of this year's farm show, a six-year-old dairy cow called "Fine", hails from an organic farm in the western French town of Plesse -- historically Socialist territory.
But even here, the National Front is making inroads. The party's vote more than tripled in December 2015 regional elections compared with the previous poll in 2010.
Dairy farming is vital to the local economy but has struggled since 2015 as plummeting prices, the end of EU quotas and Russian sanctions inspired by the Ukraine crisis hit hard.
"We don't have faith anymore," a representative for the FNSEA farmers' union in the region, Yoann Vetu, said.
"We know a thing or two about crises and we can't get out of them. So the politicians might talk about it, but they don't act," he said.
While Vetu believes Le Pen's protectionist policies would hurt the sector, local FN representative and struggling dairy farmer Olivier du Gourlay said his friends were turning to the party in increasing numbers.
"We're asking ourselves, what's going on? Because we really have been abandoned," he said.
(Additional reporting by Tatiana Chadenat; editing by Leigh Thomas and Peter Graff)