Le Pen is back, with a fighting chance

HEADLINE: Le Pen is back, with a fighting chance; As in 2002, the brawler on the far right is a force in France’s presidential race. Some say he could muster another surprise. BYLINE: Sebastian Rotella, Times Staff Writer DATELINE: NICE, FRANCE BODY: This pleasant, slightly faded city of palm trees and sea breezes has been shaped by migratory currents: workers from North Africa, middle-class retirees from Lyon and Paris, elderly French who fled Algeria after the former colony won independence. The sometimes uneasy Mediterranean mix makes Nice a bastion of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the far-right candidate who has emerged once again as a major force with a week to go before the first round of the French presidential race. In 2002, Le Pen stunned the country by reaching the presidential runoff, which he lost to President Jacques Chirac. Five years later, he has gained strength despite persistent accusations that he is racist and anti-Semitic. Polls and political analysts suggest the pugnacious ex-paratrooper could even pull off another election surprise. As he cultivates a more restrained, grandfatherly image, his National Front party has attracted voters from beleaguered Beaujolais vineyards, formerly leftist Parisian intellectual circles and, remarkably, the immigrant-dominated housing projects of Nice and other cities. No matter how Le Pen fares against front-runners Nicolas Sarkozy, Segolene Royal and Francois Bayrou in the vote April 22, “his” issues have all but dominated the campaign debate. “It seemed at first that they were all agreed not to talk about our issues, because only we had dared for the past 30 years to talk about crime, immigration and so on,” said Bruno Ligonie, a leader of the National Front here. “But the sole problem the French really care about is whether they can go out in the street without getting hit in the face or ripped off…. Sarkozy has poached votes on our turf by proposing a ministry of immigration and identity. Royal talks about the flag, the national anthem. That’s proof that we were right.” In any case, it’s apparently proof that the French are worried about their society’s ability to integrate Muslim immigrants and combat youth violence and Islamic fundamentalism. The nationwide riots of 2005 helped push the National Front toward the political mainstream, which has grudgingly recognized Le Pen’s streetwise ability to articulate the fear and anger of working people. “The more votes that Le Pen gets, the more people are willing to say out loud that they support him,” said Francois Rossi, a political analyst for Nice Matin newspaper. “This time the big theme of the campaign is immigration and identity. The French model of integration is a failure and everyone realizes it, from the left to the right.” Pollsters, blindsided by his upset of the Socialist Party five years ago, find it hard to assess Le Pen’s chances. This year’s race is tight. And some voters are reluctant to admit they plan to cast ballots for him because he still inspires intense dislike. Most surveys show Sarkozy of the center-right leading with about 25% of the vote, Royal of the Socialists trailing by a few points, and centrist Bayrou behind her in the low 20s or high teens. Although Le Pen comes in fourth, he surged as high as 16% in recent weeks, besting his numbers at the same point of the 2002 campaign. Le Pen seems capable of a last-minute sprint, say government officials, party operatives and political analysts. And this city will be a key battlefield. “I think Le Pen is once again underestimated and that he’s at around 17% or 18%,” said Bernard Asso, a deputy mayor of Nice and a regional leader of Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement party. “When you are out doing political work on the street, everyone’s talking about either Sarkozy or Le Pen.” The roots of the extreme right here in southeastern France date back to a presence of pro-Nazi parties in World War II. Later, when the French left Algeria in 1961 after a bloody war, many former French colonists, known as \o7pieds noirs\f7, resettled in Nice, Marseilles and other southern cities. They were fiercely nationalist and despised President Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the traditional right, whom they blamed for having lost Algeria. In the 1970s and 1980s, an influx of migrants from North and sub-Saharan Africa spurred the rise of the National Front, especially among blue-collar men who lived in or near industrial neighborhoods where immigrants settled. More recently, the southern coast has become kind of a French Sun Belt, attracting retired people and senior citizens who tend to resent Parisian elites, high taxes and the generous welfare bureaucracy. “Because this is a border area, people here are more sensitive to questions about immigration and foreigners,” Ligonie said during an interview last week at the headquarters of the National Front here. The discreet party offices occupy an apartment in a multiethnic neighborhood a few blocks from the train station and a dusty boulevard undergoing a major public works project where teenage toughs loiter and cruise in cars with stereos blasting rap and North African music. Unlike the headquarters of other political parties, there are no outward signs of the National Front’s presence. The buzzer at the street entrance has been vandalized in an act of apparent political sabotage. “It’s not easy being in the National Front,” said Ligonie, who is tanned, trim and a polished speaker. “We had a terrible image because we have been demonized.” The image softened during the last year as Marine Le Pen, the candidate’s daughter, took charge of the communications strategy. The elder Le Pen seems to smile more and snarl less. But he still has his moments. He recently sneered that Sarkozy, who has Hungarian and Greek-Jewish roots, was “the candidate of immigration.” The remark recalled Le Pen’s brawling, outrageous days of yore when he referred to the Holocaust as “a detail of history” and got into physical confrontations with opponents. Nonetheless, Ligonie insists that the party does not tolerate anti-Semitic or anti-immigrant sentiments. He also takes issue with the “extreme right” label. “We are neither right nor left, but French,” he said. “There is nothing in our program, in our discourse, that is anti-Semitic. And there are Jews in the National Front.” Le Pen’s platform calls for drastic measures such as pulling France out of the European Union and shutting its borders and welfare state to immigrants. Curiously, though, he has gained a foothold in the very immigrant communities he has described as a menace to the future of France. He has reached out to French citizens of immigrant origin, arguing that they are the front-line victims of excessive immigration, crime and disorder. “There are many voters for Le Pen in the projects,” said Rossi, the political journalist. “All of the French who live in those areas, and many French people of Arab origin as well. The psychology is simple. These are people who are well-established in France, especially businessmen with apartments, families, and they deal every day with the problems of the youth in the projects. And they want authority and security.” One of France’s prominent Muslim leaders, Kamel Kabtane, agreed in a recent interview that Le Pen had acquired some support in immigrant communities. Kabtane, an immigrant from Algeria who is the imam of the main mosque in Lyon, said the grizzled candidate had managed to solidify his party’s strength by being consistently frank and outspoken. “He says out loud what the others say very quietly,” Kabtane said. “And I think we must do everything possible to prevent him from being elected.” rotella@latimes.com GRAPHIC: PHOTO: RUNNING STRONG: Jean-Marie Le Pen has tempered his image since five years ago. But his tough-on-immigration themes still resonate with voters — some from immigrant neighborhoods. PHOTOGRAPHER: Eric Bouvet Getty Images LOAD-DATE: April 16, 2007