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Victims 'R' Us: French Far Right Recruits Society's Most Disaffected

France's most controversial party is winning recruits one victim at a time.

With 16 percent voter approval on the eve of this Sunday's national vote, France's extreme-right National Front party has never been stronger, and its voters could decide the vote in at least 90 marginal seats in the June 1 runoff.

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Few expect the National Front to win more than one or two seats in the next National Assembly, but the party's themes and on-the-ground style of campaigning are forcing mainstream parties to adjust their strategies.

In the southern city of Marignane, National Front activists scan newspapers for the names of crime victims. "When someone is attacked, we go to visit them and try to help them, at least with moral support," says Marignane activist Robert Egea.

A majority of French voters say they sympathize with at least some of National Front's views, including "France to the French!" and "All politicians are corrupt!"

French commentators describe this as the "Lepenization" of French political life, and pollsters say they have never seen such a large number of "lost" and disenchanted voters so close to a national vote. Some 40 percent of French voters are still undecided, according to the latest polls.

For National Front candidates, such voters are a prime target, and they are being courted, one by one. The party has made its biggest gains in the heavily immigrant cities and towns around Marseille, where National Front mayors were recently elected in Orange, Marignane, Toulon, and Vitrolles.

In the past, National Front campaigns have centered around its flamboyant founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose vitriolic speeches prompted French legislators to pass new laws against racism, anti-Semitism, and hate-speech. But the recent election of the four National Front mayors has given the party a record to run on, as well as paid city jobs and contracts to boost a network of local activists.

The National Front mayor of Orange is campaigning on a record of lowering crime 14 percent and blocking the opening of an Islamic school. The National Front also calls for giving priority to French citizens for jobs and housing, and expelling immigrants to reduce France's 12.8 percent unemployment.

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"We may be excluded from the political scene, but we are on the ground," says Bruno Mgret, the No. 2 National Front leader and the candidate most likely to be elected to the National Assembly. He adds, "For example, I just met a shopkeeper in my district who managed to buy his son a motor scooter. Recently, his son was attacked by a well-known gang of Arab immigrants, whose fathers sit around in cafes all day, and the bike was stolen. He's not getting the basic service governments owe to all citizens, security."

In the town of Arde, west of Marseille, the National Front is recruiting from groups that have been victims of crime. "Shopkeepers and senior citizens, afraid of extortion by Arab street gangs, have been coming to see me to see if the National Front can help," says Lucien Brouillet, National Front candidate.

"When the National Front has gained ground, it's been in groups where people are in great difficulty, especially among workers," says Jean-Luc Parodi, secretary general of the Paris's French Political Science Association.

Parties who stand to lose votes to the National Front in Sunday's election have tried to adapt their strategy to the new National Front presence on the ground. Communist leader Robert Hue now campaigns with a notebook of grievances under his arm, for voters to note their concerns. "Anyone who's car has been vandalized three times is a National Front voter," says Communist candidate Annick Mattlighello.

"The only way to beat the National Front here is to really get on the ground with people, appeal to their intelligence, and rebuild hope in their personal capacity to change things. I don't excuse delinquency: It's an attack on liberty, and everyone has to be responsible for their acts. But I don't answer concerns about crime by saying, 'They're not like us,' " she adds.

National groups, such as the Paris-based SOS Racism, are also sending celebrities and activists to National Front strongholds, such as Marignane, to urge people to vote against the National Front. But many locals say they resent "parachuted" Paris intellectuals who don't understand local circumstances.

"I'd like to see a Paris intellectual spend six months in the housing project I lived in," says Marianne Robrot, a single mother. "Finally, I moved to a village to get away from immigrants. But every time the village had a festival or celebration, gangs would come in and the village had cancel the festival.

"People are afraid here, but I'm more afraid of the National Front," Ms. Robrot adds. "They have the same way of presenting things that Hitler did, they condemn whole populations."

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