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Anti-Immigrant Policy Boosts France's Le Pen Again

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Jean-Marie Le Pen, presidential candidate of the right-wing French National Front party, opposes globalization and wants an immediate halt to immigration.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR /
A Catholic priest celebrates mass at the National Front presidential convention near Paris.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR /
A poster with the message "France: Love It or Leave It" was on display at the National Front convention.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, who rose to a surprising second-place finish in the French 2002 presidential election, is drawing support again this year for his anti-immigration stance. The extreme-right politician is pushing for a "national preference" welfare system that favors indigenous French over those with immigrant backgrounds.

Last week, Le Pen's National Front held a three-day presidential convention. It was a celebration of everything ultra-conservative and right-wing.

The convention included the traditional Latin mass, where the priest faces away from the faithful.

In his homily, Father Bruno Schaeffer said, "France is not dead, and with the help of the leaders of the National Front, France will rise again to fulfill its duty as a Christian nation before God and the entire world."

Immigration -- code for Muslim immigration -- was the convention's hot-button issue.


Renaud Swarz, a young man from France's rust belt in the north, was wearing the blue, white and red colors of the French flag. He spat out his disdain for people of immigrant background.

"They should be kicked out," he said. "There's no place for them here. All those Arabs and Turks, they're not French. They want to bastardize France into an Arabic country."

Musicians dressed in old French military uniforms sang army songs.

Walls were covered with posters proclaiming "Le Pen for President" and "France, love it or leave it."

One stand celebrated pigs. It was a right-wing charity that had stirred a national controversy last year when it served pork soup, seen as a deliberate offense to Muslims.

The sense that French national identity and Europe's Christian culture are under threat was echoed by the priest, Father Schaeffer.

"Islam is to the 21st century what communism was to the 20th," he said. "Catholicism -- which is spread through the blood of its martyrs -- must fulfill its missionary role to evangelize and convert Muslims."

The convention climax was a speech by Le Pen.

Disdaining liberal intellectuals as bourgeois bohemians, the 78-year-old leader lashed out at the political establishment that he said opened up France to mass immigration, endangering its security and its identity.

Le Pen is calling for a return of French sovereignty over the European Union, including replacing the euro with the old franc.

He opposes globalization and wants an immediate halt to immigration, expulsion of illegal aliens and, above all, what he calls "national preference" -- a welfare system that favors indigenous French over those with immigrant backgrounds.

Known for remarks widely considered anti-Semitic, Le Pen was convicted by a German court in 1999 of minimizing the Holocaust. A paratrooper who fought against Algerian revolutionaries in the 1950s, he had been accused of torturing prisoners.

But political scientist Nonna Mayer, an expert on the National Front, says most people who vote for Le Pen are not swayed by his political ideology.

"They don't even read his program," Mayer says. "What they remember of Le Pen is one thing -- national preference, the idea that all problems are caused by the presence of immigrants and that we must be tougher with immigrants, and we must go back to the old traditional values. That is all they see."

The latest poll shows that 18 percent of the French say they'll vote for Le Pen next spring. That's double the level of his support in the same period before the last election.

And he now boasts support among nearly all social groups, including pensioners and blue-collar voters, who used to vote for the left, in urban areas like Paris as well as in rural communities.

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