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France’s far-right National Front party takes center stage in Sunday’s election

Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front party, campaigns at the Christmas market in Henin-Beaumont in northern France on Friday.

Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front party, campaigns at the Christmas market in Henin-Beaumont in northern France on Friday.

(Michel Spingler / Associated Press)

In the 40 years that Joseph Camus has been voting in France, he never considered supporting the far-right National Front party -- until now.

Frustrated by the government’s failure to revive a moribund economy, fearful of rising immigration from the Middle East and North Africa, and convinced that recent terror attacks in Paris won’t be the last, Camus says he has lost all faith in the country’s mainstream leaders, some of whom have been in politics as long as he has been voting.

So when the National Front’s charismatic leader, Marine Le Pen, held a campaign rally in Paris this week, Camus took his place among the boisterous, flag-waving crowd gathered at a plush hall on the northwestern edge of the city.

“I always voted to the right, to the left, but it doesn’t do any good,” said Camus, who heads up a small, family-owned demolition company. “Maybe when they know there is another party, they will reform the country.”

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He was not the only new supporter in the room, which included blue-collar workers and bourgeois suburbanites, recent university graduates and retirees.

Once regarded as a radical fringe party, the National Front has been riding a wave of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-establishment sentiment that has seen it make steady gains in recent years and propelled it into the lead position heading into the second round of regional elections Sunday.

When the ballots were counted after the first round last weekend, the party was ahead of its mainstream rivals in six out of 13 mainland France regions with nearly 28% of the national vote. Savoring the moment, Le Pen declared to her supporters, “the National Front is now, without doubt, the first party of France.”

That, though, may be an exaggeration. The National Front came in less than one percentage point ahead of the center-right Republicains of former President Nicolas Sarkozy and just four points ahead of President Francois Hollande’s governing Socialists.

Le Pen’s party may find it difficult to sustain its electoral gains in the decisive second round after the Socialist Party withdrew its candidates for some regional councils so that its supporters might cast ballots for the Republicains and prevent a National Front victory.

Recent polls had Le Pen trailing her center-right rival in the traditionally Socialist northern region known as Nord-Pas-De-Calais-Picardie, where the National Front won more than 40% of the vote in the first round. The same was true for Le Pen’s niece, Marion Marechal Le Pen, who had a similar showing in the southern Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur, a stronghold of the traditional right.

Irrespective of the outcome, however, analysts say the National Front has sealed its place in the French political mainstream.

“We have moved from a two-party system to a three-party system,” said Jean-Yves Camus, a far-right expert at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations in Paris.

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The councils that run France’s 13 “super-regions,” created by Hollande from 22 smaller ones, cannot pass laws of their own. But they control sizeable budgets, dispensing funds for economic development, arts and culture, and also oversee public transport and some schools.

The results from Sunday’s vote will be seen as a barometer of public opinion; a strong showing for the National Front would provide a lift for a Le Pen presidential run in 2017, her ultimate goal.

The party has been making steady electoral progress since well before Islamist extremists waged deadly assaults in Paris in January and November, taking the largest share of the French vote in European Parliamentary elections last year: 25%.

But analysts said the party’s longstanding demands for a crackdown on immigration and criticism of the European Union’s open borders are resonating even more now with a frightened and angry public, especially since it emerged that some of the militants who killed 130 people last month may have infiltrated the massive wave of refugees fleeing Syria to slip into Europe.

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“It is clear that the migrant crisis, like the attacks, placed at the center of political debate issues on which the National Front is considered ... to be stronger -- immigration issues, security issues and identity issues,” said Joel Gombin, a researcher at the Observatory for Radicalism at the Jean-Jaures Foundation, a think tank.

Some ideas initially proposed by Le Pen have been picked up by more centrist politicians and even by Hollande’s left-leaning government which is seeking expanded powers to expel foreigners who “preach hate” and strip dual-nationals who are convicted of terrorism of their citizenship -- even if they were born in France.

But that did not mollify Laurence Othelet, who stopped by Paris’ Bataclan concert hall on a recent trip from the northeastern Ardennes region to pay respects to the 90 people killed there in last month’s shooting and bombing rampage. She said she was furious at the government for not doing more to protect citizens after the attacks in January against French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher market.

“It was foreseeable, and they did nothing,” Othelet fumed, as she surveyed the piles of flowers, notes and candles left in front of the shuttered theater with her husband and three children.

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The couple are longtime National Front-supporters. “The government has to change,” she said.

Jean-Yves Camus, the researcher, said many French voters were disgruntled not only with the major parties but with the whole political establishment, and were looking for something different.

“The National Front is of course different, because they are the only significant party that has never held national or regional power,” he said.

Le Pen made that a focus of her speech Thursday, describing the current and former governing parties as “two clans from the same political mafia.”

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“They have divided the territories between them, divvied up the sinecures,” she said. “The attacks were quickly forgotten, set aside to tackle more serious matters: saving their jobs.”

The rapt crowd responded by booing and whistling.

“It’s been like this for years,” said Joseph Camus, who hails from proud working-class stock. “All the big contracts go to the friends of the president. Little businesses like ours don’t get anything.”

Others in the hall complained that French values, culture and heritage were in danger of being lost to what they described as the “Islamization” of their country. A retired psychologist, who was attending her first political rally Thursday, listed her grievances: “Women with veils. No more pork in canteens.”

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“I think their [Muslims’] demands are going to increase until they impose on us a culture and religion that is not our own,” said Daniele, who declined to give her last name.

Since taking control of the National Front in 2011, Le Pen has sought to shed the party’s racist and anti-Semitic image to make it less toxic to voters. She has opened her arms to all French, expelling her father, the party’s cofounder Jean-Marie Le Pen, and others accused of turning the party into a refuge for neo-Nazi thugs.

She said Thursday that the National Front was calling on French Muslims to take their place in the “grand movement for national reform.”

“We are supporters of ... republican assimilation that makes of the French of all origins members of one community, the national community,” she said. But she insisted that being part of the French republic means complying with “our customs and our way of life.”

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