France's Far Right Gets Boost From Ethnic Unrest

More than two weeks of violence in France has sparked soul searching about whether the country treats its ethnic immigrants fairly. But the violence has also sharpened simmering anti-immigration sentiments among some French. Such feelings are being stoked by France's far right, which is enjoying a new surge of attention.

Several hundred people gathered on a chilly Monday night for a boisterous rally across from the Louvre Museum in Paris. The rally was organized by the far right National Front party, whose 77-year-old leader Jean-Marie Le Pen showed he could still motivate a crowd.

For years, Mr. Le Pen bellowed, the National Front has been repeating its warning against massive immigration from outside Europe and the fact that it will ruin France and bring misery to the immigrants themselves.

Mr. Le Pen and his National Front party have been repeating this anti-immigration, law-and-order message for years. But it is now making new waves, after two weeks of rioting and arson attacks across France which have been blamed on ethnic immigrant youths.

"This kind of violence among immigrants naturally fits into the theses of Jean-Marie Le Pen," said Steven Ekovich, a French politics professor at the American University of Paris. "And he is indeed trying to profit from it. And we've already begun to see this recently. He's going to try to profit from this and try to rebuild his political fortunes based on a fear of a violence coming from the suburbs. Not only from the immigrants but also the children and grandchildren of immigrants.

Mr. Le Pen's National Front reports some 3,000-4,000 people have joined the party since unrest began in France in late October. It's unclear whether those figures are correct. But a number of those who attended the Paris rally said they shared Mr. Le Pen's opposition to immigration. That includes one 71-year-old retiree who gave only his first name, Robert.

Robert said the French government has allowed too many immigrants to enter France over the years. Now, he said, France feels invaded.

Nearby, 45-year-old Remy Carillon agrees. He lives in the suburbs of Paris, where the violence first broke out two weeks ago after the accidental electrocution of two youths of African origin.

"The recent wave of violence is just the last straw for many French", Mr. Carillon says. "The bigger problem is that French never wanted immigrants to come here in the first place. But the government never consulted them. If they had been asked, French and other Europeans would have said no to immigration years ago."

The National Front wants a zero immigration policy and to expel all illegal immigrants living in France. And more recently, Mr. Le Pen has been suggesting that some ethnic immigrants - those who were born in France and entitled to French citizenship - should also be deported, if they refuse to obey French laws. Citizenship, Mr. Le Pen argues, is not just a piece of paper. It must be earned.

Many French disagree with Mr. Le Pen's arguments. The far-right leader nonetheless shocked the nation in 2002, by placing second in presidential elections, with 18 percent of the vote.

Mr. Le Pen says he will run for president again in 2007 - when he will be nearly 79 years old. Despite his age, many of his supporters hope he'll finally win the elections.

And while Mr. Le Pen's anti-immigration stance remains controversial, his law-and-order platform does appear to be resounding in many parts of France. A poll published last week showed that nearly three-quarters of French supported the government's declaration of a state of emergency to reestablish order. And more than eight out of 10 French said they were scandalized by the riots.

But Nonna Mayer, an expert on far-right voters at the Center for Study of French Political Life in Paris, says those sentiments won't necessarily translate into political success for Mr. Le Pen.

"The situation is difficult," said Nonna Mayer. "Jean-Marie Le Pen says people are coming to his party at the moment. But he has two problems. First, the elections aren't tomorrow and many things may happen, and people may have forgotten about the riots by the time we get to the presidential elections of 2007."

Mr. Le Pen's party is also deeply divided between an old guard and a new one led by his daughter. And, Ms. Mayer notes, Mr. Le Pen has competition.

Another rightist politician, Philippe de Villiers, is echoing his anti-immigration stance. Mr. de Villiers embodies a less radical right than Mr. Le Pen.

Even France's popular Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has been accused of hardening his law-and-order rhetoric to attract National Front supporters. Mr. Sarkozy is reportedly eyeing a presidential bid as well.

Mr. Le Pen, however, appears as confident as ever. During an interview on Radio Monte Carlo this week he said he wasn't afraid of other politicians - including Mr. Sarkozy - copying his ideas. "Bravo," he said. "It shows my ideas are getting somewhere." He described it as the LePenization of thinking.

Ms. Mayer, the analyst, is not so sure. Particularly not when it comes to Mr. Le Pen's thinking on immigration.

"There is the opinion among some that there is illegal immigration and we much fight it," she said. "But tomorrow, as the population gets older and older, maybe well be very happy to have these waves of immigrants to pay for our social security, to pay for our retirement funds."

So even as Mr. Le Pen's anti-immigration message draws new supporters today, it's far from certain how long that will last.

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