In the Parisian suburb of Gennevilliers, normally a stronghold of the far left, the resurgent far-right National Front party faces an uphill struggle in Sunday’s local run-off vote.
The far-right National Front (FN) party set the stage for big political gains in last Sunday’s local elections. Half of France’s 2,023 cantons – the country’s smallest territorial units – were up for grabs, and the anti-immigration party led by Marine Le Pen won a place in the second round in 394 cantons, or a fifth of all contested councils.
There were no cantonal elections in the French capital and only a few in the Paris metropolitan area. But to the north, the city of Gennevilliers is one of the places where the National Front’s apparent renewed appeal is being tested.
This week, Mayor Jacques Bourgoin could be seen out campaigning. He was outside Hakim's bakery, handing out fliers to people buying dinnertime baguettes and having a drink with rugby enthusiasts at a local bar. By contrast, FN candidate Rémi Carillon, a virtual unknown who won almost 17% of votes in the first round, was nowhere to be seen.
"We're not afraid of the far-right in Gennevilliers," the tall, mustached mayor said. Bourgoin, a member of the Communist Party, obtained almost 60% of the votes in Gennevilliers, a city with a strong immigrant population and a long tradition of voting for the Communist ticket. Despite winning over half of all ballots, very high abstention rates in the first round forced Bourgoin into a run-off.
It is almost certain the mayor will win another term. However, many residents do express fear about the far right's surge in popularity. Resident Elsa Fausillon said she continues to be shocked by the FN's electoral progress. "People voted for the FN before, but would hide it," said Fausillon. "I hear more and more people admit that they vote for the National Front." The real danger, she believes, is the trivialisation of the FN's "racist and especially xenophobic" discourse.
Elections under a curfew
The owner of the Muslim butcher shop across from City Hall agrees that the rise of the National Front is a danger to the "immigrants and the children of immigrants", but is not surprised that the party scored so well in Gennevilliers. "When they see the kids of Gennevilliers and Asnières beating each other up, they vote for the FN."
The butcher was referring to an incident two weeks ago in which a 15-year-old boy died from a knife wound. While the death was an isolated tragedy, it is part of an ongoing rivalry between youths in two adjacent housing projects that straddle the border between Gennevilliers and the city of Asnières.
The killing brought on fears of reprisals, and the mayors of both cities decided to beef up the police presence and impose a temporary curfew just before the first round of elections.
Most of the rivaling youths came from immigrant families, and such incidents add ammunition to the National Front’s two favourite talking points: what it claims is France’s unchecked immigration policy and a worsening security situation.
Daniel and Monique Marchesnay, two retirees and lifelong residents of Gennevilliers, admit that security is an issue that troubles their neighbours, especially senior citizens like them. But they are not convinced that the killing had much influence on the election.
"The election results were a warning, a sanction vote against [President] Nicolas Sarkozy," said Mr. Marchesnay, who voted for Bourgoin. "But there is also a surge of the far right across Europe, and we have to stay vigilant."
Marine Le Pen, who took over the leadership of the National Front from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in January, has tapped into a wave of anti-Islamic sentiment. Late last year she compared Muslims praying in the public streets outside crowded mosques to the Nazi-era occupation.
Despite such inflammatory comparisons, Muslims gathering for Friday prayers at the Gennevilliers mosque did not express great concern over Le Pen's growing popularity or the National Front's election success. Two young worshippers, Brahim and David, even expressed some admiration for the party. "The FN isn't any worse than the UMP (Sarkozy’s ruling party) or the Socialists, and at least the Front National are not hypocrites."
It remains to be seen if Sunday's run-off races will turn the National Front's impressive first-round showing into real political gains. But whatever the outcome, the FN continues to prove that it can seduce voters, even in the most improbable of places.
Mayor Jacques Bourgoin (left) campaigns outside Hakim’s bakery before the second round of local government elections. The incumbent is running against a candidate from France’s far-right National Front party. (Photos: ©J Bamat)
Friday is market day in the historical centre of Gennevilliers, a suburb of Paris with a large immigrant population and a tradition of voting for the Communist Party. Arabic is heard as often as French when walking through the market stalls.
Mr. Bennoui was born in Algeria but moved to France when he was three years old. "The National Front are a bunch of nuts. They’ll never govern here."
Tamaria Rodrigues is Brazilian and has lived in France for the past 20 years. "I agree with some of the National Front’s ideas. Immigrants have more rights here than French people."
Elsa Fausillon is a Gennevilliers resident who works for a Communist Party senator. "It’s still shocking to me that the FN scores well in elections. I hear more and more people admit to voting for them."
Mr. Friaa was born in Tunisia and has lived in France for 30 years. "The FN has always been around. Their electoral success is just in fashion now because conservative voters are sick of [President] Sarkozy."
Tangui Michel is a schoolteacher in Gennevilliers. "There is nothing behind the FN's discourse of division. They don't have a real programme or the political resources to govern."
Monique and Daniel Marchesnay are lifelong Gennevilliers residents. Daniel is a French veteran of the Algerian war. "The FN is dangerous because it seduces undecided voters. They are part of the far-right surge across Europe and we have to stay vigilant."
Brahim, Muhamed and David are on traffic duty before Friday prayers at Gennevillier mosque. "The FN isn’t any worse than the UMP or the Socialists, and at least the Front National are not hypocrites," David says.
Saad Absii is vice president of the Muslim association run by the mosque, but says he speaks only for himself. His father, an Algerian, fought for France in World War II. "Our fathers died for France and we came here to help rebuild. I don't bother with the FN."
Date created : 2011-03-25