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The French extreme right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen believes he will be the next president of France. Most commentators think that's unlikely. But in the presidential election of 2002 Le Pen shocked the world when his anti-immigrant and protectionist rhetoric took him to second place. Now a mood of introspection and insecurity in France is boosting Le Pen's support again.

In the last of our stories on Europe's rightward tilt, NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Paris.

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SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Last week, Le Pen's National Front held a three-day presidential convention. It was a celebration of everything ultra-conservative and right wing.

Mr. BRUNO SCHAEFFER (Priest): (Speaking foreign language).

POGGIOLI: Including the traditional Latin mass where the priest faces away from the faithful.

Mr. SCHAEFFER: (Speaking foreign language).

POGGIOLI: In his homily, Father Bruno Schaffer said France is not dead. And with the help of the leaders of the National Front, France will rise again to fulfill its duty as a Christian nation before God and the entire world. Immigration, code for Muslim immigration, was the hot button issue of the convention. Renaud Swarz, a young man from France's Rousseville in the north, was wearing the blue, white and red colors of the French flag. He's spat out his disdain for people of immigrant background.

Mr. RENAUD SWARZ: (Through translator) They should be kicked out. There's no place for them here. All those Arabs and Turks, they're not French. They want to bastardize France into an Arabic country.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) (Speaking foreign language)

POGGIOLI: Musicians dressed in old French military uniform sang army songs. The walls were covered with posters proclaiming Le Pen for President, and France: Love It or Leave It. One stand celebrated pigs. It was a right wing charity that has stirred a national controversy last year when it served pork soup, seen as a deliberate offense to Muslims.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Speaking foreign language)

POGGIOLI: Our message is very clear. We help our own before we help others. We serve pork because it's cheap, nourishing and part of French and European tradition.

The sense that French national identity and Europe's Christian culture are under threat was echoed by the priest, Father Schaeffer.

Mr. SCHAEFFER: (Through translator) Islam is to the 21st century what communism was to the 20th. Catholicism, which is spread through the blood of its martyrs, must fulfill its missionary role to evangelize and convert Muslims.

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POGGIOLI: The convention climaxed with a speech by Le Pen, disdaining liberal intellectuals as bourgeois bohemians. The 78-year-old leader lashed out at the political establishment that he said opened up France to mass immigration, endangering its security and its identity.

Mr. JEAN-MARIE LE PEN (Presidential Candidate, France): (Through translator) (Unintelligible) reactionaries, extremists and fascists by those arrogant doctrinaires and sectarian ideologues, where actually we're the avant-garde, the hope for a new world. I dare say paradoxically that we are the progressive conscience of this country.

POGGIOLI: Le Pen is calling for a return of French sovereignty over the European Union, including replacing the Euro with the old franc. He's opposed to globalization and wants an immediate halt to immigration, expulsion of illegal aliens, and above all what he calls national preference, a welfare system that favors indigenous French over those with immigrant backgrounds.

Known for remarks wildly considered anti-Semitic, Le Pen was convicted by a German court in 1999 of minimizing the Holocaust. A paratrooper who fought against Algerian revolutionaries in the 1950s, he had been accused of torturing prisoners.

But political scientist Nonna Mayer, an expert on the National Front, says most people who vote for Le Pen are not swayed by his political ideology.

Ms. NONNA MAYER (Political Scientist, France): They don't even read his program. What they remember of Jean-Marie Le Pen is one thing, national preference, the idea that all the problems in France are caused by the presence of immigrants and that's going to be tougher with immigrants. And that's why we must go back to the old traditional values. That's all they see.

POGGIOLI: The latest poll shows that 18 percent of the French say they'll vote for Le Pen next spring. That's double the level of his support in the same period before the last election. And he now boasts support among nearly all social groups, including pensioners and blue-collar voters who used to vote for the left in urban areas, like Paris, as well as in rural communities.

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POGGIOLI: Meru, a small town of 13,000 an hour's drive from Paris, was once a socialist stronghold. A plaque in the central square honors local partisans tortured and killed by the Nazis. Meru once thrived on local industries and agriculture. Today, all factories and many local stores have shut down. It's all blamed on globalization. Meru is now a bedroom community for commuters who work in Paris. It's undergoing a drastic transformation as immigrants from the Paris suburbs move here seeking cheaper rents.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language)

POGGIOLI: Meru's lone vegetable stand is run by Algerians speaking their native language. Next door, a veiled woman serves customers in the new halal butcher shop. In the last presidential election one out of four voters in Meru shows Le Pen. But it's hard to find people who admit casting votes for the National Front.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Speaking foreign language).

POGGIOLI: This woman, a retired accountant, who used to vote socialist, is one of the few willing to explain her choice.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Through translator) There are a lot of problem here. Lots of robberies, purse-snatchings. I voted for Le Pen because I want change. And I will vote for him again, even though I don't like him, because I want the government to do something finally. We see graffiti on how to wipe out white people. They force girls to wear headscarves. Mosques are popping up everywhere.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Speaking foreign language).

POGGIOLI: When asked her name, the woman's husband tells her to be quiet. This sense of insecurity grew after the riot of the ghettos a year go. And it's reflected in national polls that show 77 percent of French voters favors strong measures against young criminals. And a majority say there are too many immigrants. The credibility gap between the elite and the people has played into Le Pen's hands and is pushing his rivals toward the right.

Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy, running as a conservative, is trying to attract Le Pen's electorate. He has drafted bills making it much easier to deport illegal immigrants. And the socialist candidate, Segolene Royal, has proposed sending juvenile delinquents to military-style camps where they can be re-socialized. Journalist Christian Duplanc(ph) says the mainstream rightward ship is called the Le Penization of French political discourse.

Mr. CHRISTIAN DUPLANC (Journalist): (Through translator) Everyone - left and right - now agrees with what Le Pen has been saying for years: Islam cannot be integrated.

POGGIOLI: Duplanc says a sense of alarm has gripped the French elite. Not only could the bad boy of French politics repeat his 2002 success, he could even do much better.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Paris.

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MONTAGNE: For other stories about Europe's right turn, you can turn to NPR.org.

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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