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Today, May 1st, is the traditional workers' holiday across Europe. In France, trade unions march. May Day is also the rallying day of the country's far right National Front Party. This year, spirits were high. The party took control of a record 11 towns and cities across France in recent municipal elections. The National Front and its charismatic leader are now focusing on winning seats in the European Parliament in May. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley sends this report.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: After gathering to lay a wreath at a gilded statue of Joan of Arc, thousands of National Front supporters marched through central Paris to the opera house. Chanting nom to Brussels, oui to la Franc, marchers showed their disgust with the European Union. A large contingent of young people carried flags and banners. Twenty-five-year-old Jean Baptiste Vondeville took a bus to the rally with a group from the northern city of Lille. He says there's an electricity in the air.
JEAN BAPTISTE VONDEVILLE: (Through Translator) This year is different because now we control 11 towns. And we'll be able to prove to the French people that we're competent and can govern. So we'll be ready soon for the ultimate power, the French presidency.
BEARDSLEY: These people say France has lost its sovereignty to the E.U. and they're against what they say has been years of uncontrolled immigration from Africa and Muslim countries. One of their favorite slogans is on est chez nous, or we are in our home. People here are also against the new Trans-Atlantic Trade Pact currently being negotiated between Europe and the United States. One man calls the treaty a way for America to colonize Europe.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
BEARDSLEY: On a stage in front of Paris' ornate opera house, the new National Front mayors are introduced to the crowd. After years of being considered a pariah political party, the National Front is now making its way into the mainstream. One reason for that is the party's new leader.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC AND CHEERING)
BEARDSLEY: The crowd is ecstatic, as Marine Le Pen takes the stage. The brash, bright lawyer and divorced mother of three is credited with modernizing the party when she took over from her father, Jean Marie Le Pen, three years ago. The party has more women and young people and is no longer considered an old boys club.
MARINE LE PEN: (Foreign language spoken)
BEARDSLEY: As Le Pen speaks of France's greatness, a massive poster of Joan of Arc looms above her. The symbolism is clear. Just as Jean d'Arc delivered her country from the English invaders of the 15th century, Marine Le Pen will deliver France from the treachery of its E.U. masters and the foreign immigrants who would obliterate the French soul.
VONDEVILLE: Manuel Rodrigues has traveled with his wife from Brittany to hear Le Pen.
MANUEL RODRIGUES: (Foreign Language Spoken)
BEARDSLEY: Marine Le Pen is the only politician capable of getting our country out of the mess we're in, he says. We love her because she's a patriot.
A few blocks away, 22-year-old Kevin Ficat is selling bouquets of Lilly of the Valley, a Mayday tradition. He says Marine Le Pen and the National Front are scary.
KEVIN FICAT: We have to be careful because French people are becoming more and more for Marine Le Pen. Because they think that all French problem is about the foreigners, of black people or Arabian, and it's not true.
BEARDSLEY: The economic downturn and the constant political focus on immigration have given a boost to far right parties across Europe. European parliamentary elections in May will be a test of their power.
Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.
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