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Politics & Government

French National Front Party Gaining Appeal In Regional Elections

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Just days before regional elections in France, the far-right National Front is leading the polls. It's a party long considered on the extremist fringe. A good measure of the party's current popularity can be attributed to voter disenchantment with the mainstream parties and a lack of interest in the upcoming election. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking French).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: A cluster of National Front party candidates and their supporters campaigns through the streets of the port city of Marseille, ducking in and out of florists and bakeries to talk to the shopkeepers. Leading the way is 45-year-old Stephane Ravier, one of the National Front's 12 newly elected mayors. Since 2014, the trim, neatly dressed family man has presided over Marseille's gritty northern sector where he grew up.

STEPHANE RAVIER: (Through interpreter) This part of the city is a patchwork of small village-like areas where French and immigrants of European origin live. But all around are housing projects with people from Muslim countries and Africa and North Africa.

BEARDSLEY: Marseille is a city built by waves of immigrants. Ravier's own mother came to France from Italy. But he says today's immigrants are different.

RAVIER: (Through interpreter) I grew up here. There's everything for a good life - schools, shops, sports facilities for young people. But these new populations are destroying it. France continues to let in people with radically different morals, traditions and religion from ours who refuse to integrate.

BEARDSLEY: The National Front's message that out-of-control immigration is to blame for insecurity, unemployment and an overly stretched social welfare system is gaining appeal, especially after three French-born youths of North African descent killed 17 people in attacks on a French satirical magazine and a kosher supermarket in January. The National Front says its membership has skyrocketed since the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Party leader Marine Le Pen recently spoke of changing French law that automatically grants citizenship to the children of immigrants when they turn 18.

MARINE LE PEN: (Through interpreter) To become French is an honor, and we can't degrade it by giving it to delinquents and criminals. I think you have to earn it, and each person's situation should be judged separately.

BEARDSLEY: Since taking over leadership of the party from her father four years ago, Le Pen has worked to modernize the National Front. She has tried to break with its good-old-boy, anti-Semitic origins and attract more women. Most recently, the National Front has been effective at the local level, promoting itself as the party that helps the little people, the French people who have been forgotten.

RAVIER: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Ravier and his group are getting a warm reception inside a butcher shop.

MICHEL ROMAN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "No one paid any attention to us before," says butcher Michel Roman. "We never saw the police. Now all that's changed," he says, "they're even fixing the street."

But not everyone is falling for the party's charm offensive. Fifty-year-old Luc Bonifay says the country's current political, social and moral crisis makes the National Front seem appealing.

LUC BONIFAY: I think it's very, very dangerous. When you are society crisis, like in this moment, it's very easy to vote for this party.

BEARDSLEY: That's exactly what mainstream politicians on the left and right fear, and they've been urging their supporters to go out and cast a vote against the National Front on Sunday. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Marseille. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.