Where the French Far Right Rules
New mayor marked as racist, but immigrants say it could be worse
MARIGNANE, FRANCE — 'FRANCE, Love It or Leave It,'' reads a small poster on a road to Marignane.
Tapping into this defiant public mood, a right-wing National Front candidate won election as mayor of this southern French city last month by only 147 votes.
Now Mayor Daniel Simonpieri has to prove that his anti-immigrant, ''French-first'' party - which has never governed before - is not as dangerous as most of France thinks.
His victory was built on voter displeasure with an unemployment rate at nearly 18 percent - often blamed on immigrants - and with 48 years of Socialist government.
Not only is Mr. Simonpieri under pressure to create jobs, but he must also help his party overcome its image as extremist, racist, and anti-Semitic.
The party's leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, has advocated closing France's borders, quitting the European Union, and expelling immigrants. As in Marignane, high unemployment throughout France prompted voters to hand Mr. Le Pen more than 15 percent of the presidential vote this spring, and they pushed more moderate presidential candidates to adopt his harder line.
Weeks later, in the same local elections that gave Simonpieri his post, National Front candidates also won in two other cities near Marignane.
Many observers are concerned that a National Front government anywhere could spark race riots, an exodus of business, or illegal discrimination.
But some immigrants have been relieved by the results so far in this town.
''We expected we might all be thrown out,'' says Saban Guler, who runs a food store in Florida Park, a housing complex where 97 percent of residents are Turkish or North African.
''But he's come to visit here and talked to us. He seems OK.''
Marignane's new mayor plans to combat crime and cut taxes. He also has promised to implement a policy of ''national preference'' in providing municipal jobs, housing, and aid to French citizens first.
''People in this region have always been welcoming,'' says Simonpieri. ''When you welcome people, it allows them to learn your customs and way of life. The problem is that recent [non-European] immigrants don't want to learn our way of life, they want us to adapt to theirs.''
If he and the two other National Front mayors do a good job, party leaders see it as their chance to attract new supporters and earn more influence nationally. Their task is similar to that of Communist mayors in the 1960s who tried to establish a record of good government locally to build credibility for national office.
Once home to vineyards and orchards, Marignane grew from a town of less than 4,000 in 1945 to 32,400 today. In his campaign, Simonpieri defined his constituency as native residents of southern France, ethnic French who repatriated from North Africa, and immigrants from Italy, Spain, and other European countries. ''We share traditions and memories,'' he said in a widely distributed audiocassette.
As a municipal councillor before becoming mayor, Simonpieri voted against city support of several immigrant programs. ''I start with the principle that when you want to integrate, you don't need an association to help you,'' he says.
But ''these associations now exist and will continue to exist,'' he adds.
Residents at Florida Park were at first stunned by the National Front win. ''I just don't understand the vote,'' says Hakim, a young adult of Moroccan origin. ''People here have always been very friendly to me, they always smile.''
Others here say they will be fine if they stay out of trouble. ''If you stay on the road, you'll be all right with this new mayor,'' adds a young Turkish woman. ''It's only if you step off the road that you'll get into trouble.''
Mr. Guler's grocery store, alongside a storefront mosque, is the meeting point of the complex. Well-thumbed Turkish newspapers rest on folding chairs in the corner, and there's always a discussion in progress. Since last month's election, the main concern has been Bosnia, not the new National Front mayor, says Guler. ''Bosnia is a concern day and night.''
Going home anyway
An inward shift in the national mood had some Turks here thinking about going home even before the vote put the National Front in power here. ''If there's work around here, they'll give it to French not to foreigners,'' says Turgay, another Florida Park resident. ''We may be better off in Turkey.''
Decades of Socialist Party control of the region supported a dense network of groups to help immigrants. Social workers are hesitant to talk publicly about relations with the new National Front team.
''We're dependent on city funding,'' says one.
In the nearby port city Marseilles, the Fund for Social Action for immigrants and their families supports some 500 groups in the region. FAS official Hanafi Chabbi urges groups to be ''vigilant'' to ensure that democratic values are respected.
''High unemployment brings with it an anti-immigrant discourse,'' he says.
''We're not prejudging these National Front mayors. These are young teams. They haven't made their mark yet.''