In Far-Right-ControlledTowns, Changes Spark Concerns

Critics say National Front targeted immigrant groups for budget cuts, tried to pay 'native French' to have kids.

When Jean-Marie Le Chevallier recounts his proudest achievements since being elected mayor of this Mediterranean port city three years ago, you would not think, from hearing him talk, that he is a leader of the extreme right-wing National Front Party.

Sitting in his harborside office decorated with patriotic busts of French heroine Joan of Arc, the genial bespectacled mayor reels off the sort of tasks that city officials the world over have to deal with: reducing crime, maintaining public housing, and keeping municipal finances in order.

Reducing the budget deficit he inherited is one of Mr. Le Chevallier's biggest accomplishments.

And since he took over from a notoriously corrupt city government - several of whose members are now behind bars - his campaign slogan "Clean Hands, Head Held High" has served him well in his bid to build an image as an efficient administrator.

But critics contend a closer look at how he trimmed city spending reveals the racist and highly conservative ideological cut of Le Chevallier's sails.

'Choices' tell a lot

For example, recalls local Socialist party leader Odette Casanova, as the new mayor cut back on city subsidies for a range of civic associations, a select handful lost all of their funding. "And the choices he made tell you a lot," she says.

Le Chevallier targeted "all the organizations that bother the National Front," Ms. Casanova says. Such targets included a Tunisian community center that assists immigrants, a Jewish community center that was being refurbished, a charity caring for the homeless, a Protestant youth club, and an anti-AIDS program.

Toulon lies at the heart of the Cte d'Azure, a Southern coastal region famed for its olive groves and beach resorts such as Nice and Cannes, where the National Front has captured four towns and begun to put its policies into practice.

Emphasis on law and order

In all four towns the emphasis on law and order is heavy, and the mayors are all promising to cut taxes.

Nowhere is the party program quite so "in your face" as in Vitrolles, where National Front No. 2 leader Bruno Mgret has installed his wife as mayor after being disqualified from holding the office himself.

A boomtown in the 1970s that has since been hit hard by unemployment, Vitrolles has been in National Front hands since 1996, and the atmosphere - especially for its immigrant citizens - is tense.

"Saying 'Good morning,' to your neighbors isn't the same any more," explains Zora Bouzianne, a French woman of Algerian origin.

"You're always wondering which of them voted for the National Front," she says.

Black-uniformed municipal police patrol the streets of Vitrolles with Doberman dogs, local residents say, and social clubs where teenagers used to gather have been closed down.

In addition, the city council tried to impose the National Front's most controversial policy plank - its "national preference" to give priority to "native French" people in jobs, welfare, and housing.

It did so by offering a 5,000 franc ($800) bonus to the parents of each French child born in city hospitals.

The initiative was struck down by France's constitutional council, which ruled that it was discriminatory and thus illegal.

"But it publicized the spirit behind our program," explains Le Chevallier, in order "to encourage the birth of French children and not to populate France with foreigners."

Economic fears, joblessness

If immigration and the fear of foreigners provide the party with its most fruitful field of political activity, says Le Chevallier, economic hardship and the fear of joblessness are also emotive issues that the National Front has exploited well.

"Just look at the political map of France and you see that we do best in the regions where you have the heaviest immigration and the greatest economic difficulties," says Le Chevallier. "If everyone were prosperous, there would be no more problems."

And the party blames that lack of prosperity - the French unemployment rate is over 12 percent - on foreigners and the globalized economy, scapegoats that many frustrated voters are happy to find.

"Nobody can be sure of his future or of his career when someone in Hong Kong or Chicago can close down a factory in Provence with a stroke of his pen in the name of 'global restructuring,' " argued Mr. Mgret in a recent campaign speech in Aix-en-Provence, 60 miles northwest of Toulon.

"We have to protect existing jobs by regulating trade against unfair competition... and it is time to send immigrants back to their countries of origin, which would free up one million jobs for French people," he declared, to warm applause.

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