France's Far-Right Wins Converts, Plots Big Future

FRANCE'S ultra-right National Front voters are already looking past the May 7 presidential vote, in which they forced moderate candidates to address their concerns.

They are now looking to municipal elections in June. These elections will help determine whether their party has staying power as a major player in French politics.

And in its quest to dramatically increase representation on city councils this summer, the National Front is finding support from unexpected quarters: former Socialist voters and even some immigrants.

''The National Front is not the party of the right, it is the party of France,'' National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen told tens of thousands of supporters in Paris May 1. He earned a record 15 percent share of the vote in the first round of balloting on April 23, though he didn't make the upcoming runoff vote.

Leftist support for Mr. Le Pen was a surprise for pollsters. But any level of immigrant support for the National Front candidate, who made an anti-immigrant platform the centerpiece of his campaign, was still more unexpected.

National Front spokesmen say immigrants are responsible for the nation's high unemployment rate of 12.3 percent, juvenile delinquency, the spread of AIDS, and the dilution of French national identity. A young Comoran immigrant was killed this year in a clash with Le Pen supporters. And a young Moroccan was drowned in the Seine River, allegedly by skinhead youths after a Le Pen rally in Paris May 1. (The National Front denies involvement in his death.)

A breakdown of the April 23 vote quickly showed that Le Pen's message appealed to much of the working class. While the National Front vote stagnated or declined in areas of traditional strength in greater Paris and in the south, it made significant gains in northern and eastern France, regions devastated by closures and layoffs in heavy industry.

''The major shift in the electorate in the first round of voting was the transfer of traditional Socialist and working-class voters to Le Pen,'' says Pascal Perrineau, director of the Center for the Study of French Political Life. Le Pen was the No. 1 choice of France's workers and its unemployed, according to exit polls by the CSA polling organization.

But also among those dissatisfied with mainstream parties are significant numbers of immigrants, who are now unemployed but once manned the nation's textile and steel mills, coal mines, and automobile plants. Some appear to have supported Le Pen.

''If you look at neighborhoods where the National Front scored its highest gains, you'll find large numbers of people unemployed or living on public support,'' says Jacqueline Costa-Lascoux, a researcher with the Center of the Study of French Political Life (CEVIPOF).

''The National Front used to draw votes from small shopkeepers or peasants. Now it's picking up a considerable working-class vote, including votes from unemployed immigrants,'' she adds.

Unemployment among ethnic North Africans in France is three times the national rate, she says. The great majority of black Africans in France are unemployed. One immigrant neighborhood in Paris that once had the lowest National Front vote in the city racked up a 16 percent vote for Le Pen on April 23.

''Among these voters, we are seeing the same fears that were expressed by immigrants in California [in a 1994 vote on tightening border control],'' says Ms. Costa-Lascoux. ''The immigrants that arrived first -- and legally -- don't want to be confused with the flood of illegals that followed them.''

Such hypotheses must be evaluated very carefully, insists Nonna Mayer, a leading French authority on the National Front, also with CEVIPOF. ''The shift of votes toward the National Front from the working classes began three years ago. This election reinforced the trend,'' she said.

''It would clearly be wrong to say that immigrants now support Le Pen,'' she added. ''But local studies may turn up some effect from immigrants who now want to shut the door behind them.''

But National Front activists are not waiting for studies. They are already competing for control of the nation's cities and towns in next month's municipal vote.

''Since the presidential vote, we have received calls from many people we have never seen before who wanted to be included on our list of candidates,'' says Robert Moreau, the leading National Front official in the Nord, in the industrial north of France.

''Unemployment is the No. 1 problem in our region, followed by security for older citizens,'' he said. In this traditional Socialist bastion, Le Pen scored 17 percent of the vote.

''We are not a racist party,'' he insists. ''Many of the immigrants that vote for and support our party have already acquired rights of citizenship. But they too are menaced by unemployment, deprivation of housing, and taxes. They know their own situation could be called into question by the presence of other immigrants who come clandestinely.''

But many National Front leaders still turn to explicitly racial public discourse that appears to condone violence. National Front T-shirts and bumper stickers, on sale at a Le Pen rally in Paris during the presidential campaign, highlight racial stereotypes.

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