Once Considered Extremist, National Front Attracts Broader French Electorate
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
France elects the leaders of 13 administrative regions this weekend. After a first round of voting, the National Front is in the lead. It was once considered a fringe party of the far right, but the National Front now attracts wide support. It is considered a nativist party in a time of political anxiety and terror attacks. Its newest star is a symbol of its new appeal. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports from Marseille.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARION MARECHAL-LE PEN: (Speaking French).
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Marion Marechal-Le Pen is the niece of National Front leader Marine Le Pen and the granddaughter of party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, and this crowd in Marseille can't get enough of her. This svelte blonde lawyer and mother is the hallmark of the party's success in this round of elections. The 26-year-old stands poised to govern one of the country's most prosperous regions along the French Riviera.
Across town at Socialist Party headquarters, the mood is not so ebullient. The socialists ran this region for the last 18 years, but they did so poorly in last weekend's first round that the party has dropped out of the race entirely. They're urging their voters to support the mainstream conservative candidates in order to block the National Front. Twenty-six-year-old Eva Tahla was a Socialist candidate for regional council. She says Marion Marechal-Le Pen is a dangerous adversary.
EVA TAHLA: (Through interpreter) She incarnates the new generation and the older generation of her grandfather, so she can mobilize everyone. She especially appeals to the young people who are unemployed.
BEARDSLEY: With the National Front poised to take one to six French regions for the first time in history, the political establishment is in a panic. All week, elected officials from both sides have been urging the large number of voters who stayed home last weekend to turn out Sunday to block the National Front. Le Pen and her supporters in Marseille reveled in all the attention.
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MARECHAL-LE PEN: (Speaking French).
BEARDSLEY: Don't listen to the elites who want to take our democracy hostage, said Le Pen. They say we're the party of fear, but they resort to lies and intimidation to keep us from being elected. They are the real party of fear.
The National Front has gotten a boost from the recent terrorist attacks and the migrant crisis, but it's hardly had to work at it. It is as if recent events are catching up to the party's scaremongering over mass Muslim immigration and terrorism. Far right specialist Nonna Mayer says the National Front has been gaining broader appeal since Marine Le Pen took over four years ago and broke with her father's racist and anti-Semitic brand of politics.
NONNA MAYER: So it's a progressive but a constant electoral dynamic linked to her strategy of presenting a normal face of the party.
BEARDSLEY: That normal face of the National Front is drawing more women and young people who say they're ready to try something new. Students like Boris Elgoyen hang out in front of the law in the southern town of Aix-en-Provence.
BORIS ELGOYEN: (Through interpreter) Today's National Front is completely different from the past. And even if they don't win, it's great they're putting pressure on the traditional parties who've been in power forever and haven't done what they promised - to improve unemployment and security.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in French).
BEARDSLEY: Back at the rally, the crowd sings the Marseillaise. Le Pen notes that since the terrorist attacks, some politicians have embraced the national anthem and the flag. We always have, she says. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Marseille.
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