LILLE, FRANCE — TO attend a National Front rally is to be struck by the contrast between the faces inside and those one sees on French streets: It is like taking a trip back to the France of the 1950s, before waves of Arab and African immigrants began adding greater variety to the country's skin-tone and cultural mix.
One is confronted with a sea of white, French-French faces, and an atmosphere that is open and convivial. As the pre-rally music blares its messianic and patriotic overtones, most individuals in the audience are easily approached, and without hesitation share their reasons for joining a party that many of their compatriots consider fascist, Hitlerian, and dangerous for France.
"I know what a lot of people think of the National Front," says Guy Losfeld, a middle-aged photographer from Dunkirk, France, attending a National Front (FN) rally in Lille. "But when people are out there saying we shouldn't even have the right to hold our meetings, you see who it is that's antidemocratic." Formerly a center-right voter, Mr. Losfeld says: "All the old parties did nothing but deceive us, so it's over. I'm in the right place."
Most FN supporters here insist they are not racist, but believe in a France that is safe for the French people and culture. "You'll tell me it's racist, but the Arabs are a problem," says Andre Couillet, a truck driver and an FN candidate in regional elections. "They don't want to integrate but maintain their foreign culture here, and why should we accept that?"
Another striking factor at the rally is the large number of young people, many of whom say involvement with the FN was their first interest in and exposure to politics.
"Nothing ever spoke to me before, but with the Front and Jean-Marie [Le Pen] I feel completely involved," says Lionel Clemenceau, a young father of two and also a candidate in the regional elections. "It has nothing to do with racism and fascism, and all that ridiculous stuff, but everything to do with a corrupt and money-grabbing government, and with tradition and employment," he adds. "I want there to be something left of France for my children."