For France's anti-migrant right, Paris attacks offer an electoral boost

Despite President Hollande's firm stance, Marine Le Pen's National Front is looking to capitalize on voters' fears in regional elections in early December.

Pascal Rossignol/Reuters
Marine Le Pen, French National Front political party leader and candidate for the National Front in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie region, attends a political rally as she campaigns for the upcoming regional elections in Amiens, France, November 23, 2015.

Calais’ Rue Royale is far away from the coordinated terrorist attacks that killed 130 people in Paris Nov. 13. But Calais resident Catherine Léman says they feel close enough, and she’s more certain than ever that France’s politicians must take firmer action in the face of the Islamic State’s rising threat in Europe.

“I am absolutely in favor of reestablishing our borders,” says Ms. Léman at a cafe-tobacco shop here. “People who have nothing to do here should stay where they came from.”

Like Léman, who works at a local chocolate shop, many people in this coastal city north of Paris, a stronghold of the far-right National Front party, fear that would-be terrorists are sneaking through Europe’s porous borders.

They say they are exasperated with the steady stream of migrants in France – Calais is home to France’s largest migrant camp – not to mention ongoing related issues like unemployment and a decline in tourism.

Conservative parties – like Marine Le Pen’s National Front – are already looking to capitalize on such fears as French voters head to the polls in regional elections Dec. 9 and 13, and public opinion surveys suggest they have already received a boost.

By Monday, a nationwide political truce that followed the attacks had expired. But while most politicians have remained largely silent, Ms. Le Pen has appeared on French and international media to promote her party’s anti-migrant and anti-Islam rhetoric and its criticism of President François Hollande.

Over the weekend, Le Pen criticized Mr. Hollande for his “ideological blindness in the face of a number of issues,” specifically in terms of border controls and France’s increasing migrant population, which she said “terrorists have infiltrated.”

Le Pen’s niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the National Front’s member of parliament for the Vaucluse department, said while campaigning over the weekend in Toulouse that successive governments’ lax approach to crime was to blame for the Paris attacks.

Already, an opinion poll by Harris interactive taken since the attacks has showed the National Front in the lead with 27 percent, while President Hollande’s Socialist party has 26 percent. The National Front will be looking to succeed especially in regions like Calais’ Nord Pas-de-Calais, where the party is gaining ground. Even before the attacks, a September poll by Odoxa showed that 40 percent of voters in that region would vote for the National Front.

Building resentment

The Nord Pas-de-Calais region remains one of the poorest in France – since its industrial sector went bust in the 1970s and 1980s, it has struggled with a nearly 13 percent unemployment rate. And its 6,000-strong refugee camp on the outskirts of town, known as “The Jungle,” and a constant flow of new migrants have become a source of anger for many in town.

“We’re fed up,” says Léman, who feels that the migrant situation in particular has contributed to the town’s financial losses. “We’ve lost our reputation, we have fewer tourists, and so we’ve lost a lot of clients and money.”

Frédérique Douzet, a professor of geopolitics at the University of Paris 8, says many French people feel threatened by immigration, concerned that it could endanger their identity, economic state and welfare services.

And while Le Pen has taken a softer approach on race, religion, and immigration since her father and former party leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was booted from the FN’s top seat, she will be looking to tap into the growing frustration in places like Calais.

“Le Pen is playing on the resentment that has been building in recent years,” says Ms. Douzet. “There is a frustration with the political class – many people think politicians are not taking care of them.”

A more consistent message

In the wake of the attacks, Hollande has taken a stronger stance on ensuring security – upping controls at the border, threatening disloyal dual passport holders with a loss of citizenship, and declaring that migrants who don’t qualify for aid will have to leave.

And while Hollande has enjoyed a 33 percent approval rating since the attacks, rising eight points, some say his current pronouncements are further proof of why they will vote for the National Front.

“The Paris attacks show us exactly what the National Front has been saying all along,” says Aurélien Legrand, a party supporter in Paris. “They’ve been telling President Hollande to take stricter measures, and he didn’t do anything. Now he’s saying exactly what the National Front has always said.”

Le Pen offers a feeling of security at a time when many politicians are flip-flopping on their standpoints and failing on promises, Legrand says.

“After the attacks, Hollande used the same statements that he criticized Marine Le Pen for using just last week,” says Legrand. “Le Pen is the only candidate who is coherent in her message, who doesn’t change her ideas. You can see her determination.”

An untried alternative

And while Le Pen may be tapping into a veritable resentment building across the country, some say that what Le Pen would be able to do – if and when she were elected in the regional elections and then as president – remains very limited.

Jean-Yves Camus, a researcher at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, says the National Front’s radical proposals, like closing the country borders, or halting all immigration, are impossible to implement. However, in moments of crisis, Camus says voters feel cornered.

“The major reason why the National Front has jumped in the polls is because it is the only major political party that has never actually been in power,” says Camus. “For many people, it appears to be the one alternative that has not been tried yet, and they’re so weary with the political system that they consider voting for the National Front.”

Max Giaya, owner of the cafe-tobacco shop on Calais’ Rue Royale, says, “I try to remain neutral when talking politics with my clients, but we’ve been backed into a corner, financially and in terms of immigration. “Obviously the National Front is going to use that.”

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