French far right eyes new electoral wins after Paris attacks
Dec. 03, 2015
LILLE, France (AP) — Security and migrants, themes irresistible to France's far-right National Front, are being served up on a silver platter to leader Marine Le Pen, as she campaigns for a new electoral breakthrough in weekend regional elections overshadowed by the Paris attacks.
The crowd was ready with flags, cheers and patriotic fervor this week in Lille, the capital of a large chunk of northern France, and a Socialist bastion she is trying to upend. Le Pen's unusually lackluster delivery didn't matter. When she accused the government of responsibility in the Nov. 13 attacks, claiming the violence was the result of a "security disaster," her followers jumped to their feet.
Polls suggest the National Front could win the hardscrabble northern region — where Le Pen hopes to personally head the regional council governing 6 million people — and a southern region that embraces Provence and the Cote d'Azur where her niece is on a roll.
The two-round elections that begin Sunday and end Dec. 13 are the first for the 13 "super regions" created by President Francois Hollande from 22 smaller ones. The balloting is also the last time the French will vote before the 2017 elections for president — Le Pen's ultimate goal.
She freely uses scare tactics to profit from the pervasive fear instilled by the attacks. If the Islamic State group isn't defeated, she told a crowd Wednesday night, "Islamist totalitarianism will take power in our country." She also warned that "Shariah (Islamic law) will replace the constitution."
The prospect that the anti-immigration party could take even one of the 13 regions is drawing warnings from the political and business establishment, with some calling on citizens to beware of a sharp swing to the far right. One win would put the National Front in an important executive function, burnish its image as a credible party and boost its potential supply of trained officials, now sorely wanting, should Le Pen become president.
Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls issued a public appeal this week to stop the National Front, joining the powerful employers' union in condemning its economic platform. Then he went further: "The National Front does not like France," he said on Europe 1 radio Tuesday. "It is misleading the French people."
Even the understated interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, went after Le Pen, calling her a "knowing fibber" after she delivered what he called false figures linked to the security crackdown that followed the Paris attacks.
But the arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants in Europe and the atrocities of the Islamic State group, which has claimed responsibility for the attacks, have bolstered the discourse of the anti-immigration party. It typically denounces what it claims is the corrupting influence of Islam on French civilization and the country's "submersion" by migrants, which she blames on the European Union and the open-border Schengen zone.
Le Pen now mixes her criticism of leaky borders, migrants and Islam in "I told you so" campaign speeches.
"The Islamic State fulfills its promises. It had announced attacks in France. There have been attacks in France," she said at a rally Friday in Nice to support her niece, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, one of four National Front lawmakers trying to take the region from former President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative right.
"Our politicians must open their eyes," she said. "Yes, there is definitely a link between massive immigration ... and radical Islam."
The anti-establishment National Front has made a string of electoral advances after working to undo its image as an extremist, anti-Semitic party since Marine Le Pen took over in 2011 from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen. Opening her arms to all French with a strategy she calls "anti-demonization," the younger Le Pen has lured new followers from the left, the traditional right and previously non-committed youth. Meanwhile she is working to expel her firebrand father from the ranks of the party.
But the National Front's changing image has raised doubts about its real nature.
Perhaps the most surprising red light flashed this week from the biggest newspaper in the northern region that Le Pen hopes to govern. La Voix du Nord published two front-page pieces on Monday and Tuesday to "alert" citizens to what it said is the party's program and the "nature of its representatives," concluding among other things that the National Front "is dangerous for social cohesion" and defends "a vision harmful for the region."
"The media wants to scare France because the polls are very favorable (for Le Pen)," said Valentin Leger, 19, a first-year law student among some 1,000 people attending Le Pen's rally in Lille.
Le Pen lambasted the paper, asking how it has the right to act as "a moral authority and issue fatwas." She concluded that the articles, which fact-checked some Le Pen statements, served her cause by illustrating the clan-like connections within a power system "that gangrenes the region and that I have the honor to fight."
Le Pen proposes to "invent the region of tomorrow" in the northern land that has the highest jobless rate among the 13 regions — 12.5 percent — and is the poorest, with nearly 20 percent living under the poverty line. She promises "economic patriotism" to favor local businesses in public bids, and reinforced security at schools. One of her most popular pledges is a clampdown on the thousands of migrants who flock to the port of Calais.
Le Pen's political enemies have no choice but "to treat her like she's a devil," said William Sjoberg, a 27-year-old doctor who until six months ago backed the Socialists, before feeling "betrayed" and switching to the National Front.
"I think she can give people hope," Sjoberg said. "They've lost hope. They need hope. "
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