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Marseilles Voters Debate Support for Far-Right Candidate Le Pen - 2002-04-30

On Thursday, France's far-right presidential candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen, will hold a massive rally in the Mediterranean port city of Marseilles, a city where he is very popular. Almost one in four voters in the city backed Mr. Le Pen in the first round of French elections - far higher than the national average. And residents may give Mr. Le Pen strong support in this Sunday's runoff against President Jacques Chirac.

The streets slant steeply upward from this city's sun-washed port, where tourists stroll and Senegalese ply wooden African statues. On balconies, Arab women in traditional gowns hang laundry to dry. Along narrow sidewalks, the smell of grilling merguez - the spicy Tunisian sausage - hangs in the air. Old men wearing fez caps nap on benches.

Welcome not to Algiers or Alexandria, Egypt, but to Marseilles - the French doorway to North Africa and stronghold of National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Like elsewhere in France, this port city has been buffeted by student protests against Mr. Le Pen in recent days, after the far-right candidate placed second during the first round of presidential voting on April 21. Nationally, Mr. Le Pen captured almost 17 percent of the vote, putting him in second place - ahead of France's Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin.

But in Marseilles, Mr. Le Pen came in first, with more than 23 percent of the vote - ahead of the front runner, conservative President Jacques Chirac.

In this colorful city, home to North African Muslims and Jews, ethnic Italians and Armenians, Mr. Le Pen fell back on his traditional power base: Working class, white French citizens. But some second-generation Arab Muslims and Jews also voted for the far-right candidate - despite his rhetoric, which has traditionally been considered anti-immigrant and, occasionally, anti-Semitic.

Jackie Blanc, head of the National Front's Marseilles office, said those new supporters aren't surprising.

Mr. Blanc argues that recent events, including growing insecurity about crime and a spate of attacks against Jews in France, help account for Mr. Le Pen's growing popularity. He said, French of all ethnic backgrounds are finally hearing and responding to Mr. Le Pen's law-and-order message.

Salah Bariki, a city councilor of Algerian origin, heads a project for low-income youth in Marseilles.

Mr. Bariki said many older, ethnic North Africans in Marseilles are fed up with the violence in their neighborhoods - which is often blamed on second and third-generation Arab youths. When their parents went to the polls on April 21, Mr. Bariki said, it is quite possible some voted for Mr. Le Pen, because of his get-tough-on-crime message.

In one of his best-known remarks, Mr. Le Pen described Nazi gas chambers as, quote, a detail in history. But according to local politician Evelyne Sitruk, some Jews in Marseilles also backed the Front leader in the first round vote.

Mrs. Sitruk, who is Jewish and the sister in law of France's Grand Rabbi, said some members of the community also liked Mr. Le Pen's pledge to establish law-and-order in France.

A synagogue in Marseille was burned to the ground recently, and a Jewish school firebombed twice. When members of the Jewish community experience injustice and feel insecure, Mrs. Sitruk said, they may vote for extremes.

And although Mr. Le Pen is often described as a racist, party officials include a smattering of Muslims, and French of other ethnic backgrounds - like 31-year-old Stephane Durbec.

Mr. Durbec is a National Front councilor from the Provence region, which includes Marseilles. He is also one of the few party members who is black. Mr. Durbec said Mr. Le Pen and his party are neither racist nor xenophobic. He said the National Front is merely fighting for France and its French citizens.

Mr. Le Pen's strong showing in Marseilles this April contrasts sharply with his prospects just a year ago. Then, his National Front party was weakened after a top official quit and formed the far-right Republican National Movement party. Both parties fared poorly in the 2001 municipal elections.

Now, while Mr. Le Pen's chances of being elected France's next president are remote, experts believe his party may gain seats in the legislative election, set for June.

Despite his popularity in the voting booth, few people on the streets of Marseilles appear willing to admit they voted for Mr. Le Pen in the first-round presidential vote. One woman acknowledged she backed the far-right candidate. But she wouldn't give her name during an interview.

But even those who criticized Mr. Le Pen sometimes agreed with what he said. Tunisian store owner Rachid Rojbi, who arrived in Marseilles 20 years ago, branded Mr. Le Pen as racist and a xenophobic. But Mr. Rojbi said he agreed with Mr. Le Pen's call to halt immigration to France. Mr. Rojbi said new immigrants from North Africa were giving old ones like himself a bad name.

But plenty of Marseillaise are adamantly against Mr. Le Pen, and his ideas. That includes French soccer star, Zinnedine Zidane, an ethnic Algerian who was born in Marseilles. In an interview on French radio Monday from his new home in Madrid, Mr. Zidane said Mr. Le Pen was an affront to French values.

Benali Belabdelli, a native of Algeria, also said he was appalled by Mr. Le Pen's strong showing.

Mr. Belabdelli, a grocer who has lived in Marseilles almost 50 years, said he did not believe the French are racist. He said the vote for Mr. Le Pen was a protest vote - that Marseillais, of all ethnic origins are fed up with the French government. On Mr. Benabdelli's own street - which is home to many ethnic North Africans - the National Front estimates half the voters backed Mr. Le Pen.