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Far-right targets 2012 presidential vote at Nice rally

Supporters of the anti-immigration National Front party are gathering for an important conference in the French city of Nice amid hopes party leader Marine Le Pen can help lead it to real political gains in 2012.


France’s anti-immigration National Front (FN) is calling on supporters and sympathisers to rally around the party’s presidential candidate as it gathers in the southeastern city of Nice on September 10 and 11. Marine Le Pen, who took over as party leader from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, last year, has seen her popularity slip in recent weeks, but she remains one of the leading candidates in the 2012 race for the Elysée presidential palace.

As France and the rest of the world turn their attention on September 11 to New York's Ground Zero and the ceremonies marking 10 years since the terrorist attacks in the United States, Le Pen will deliver her keynote speech at the National Front conference. Her address may seem ill-timed, but in fact it suits a party that has always painted itself as a counterforce to France’s political and social establishment.

France's president is elected by direct voting for a five-year term.

Presidential elections have historically been organised into two rounds. If no candidate wins more than half of all ballots in the first round, voters must pick between the two top candidates in a run-off.

The first round of the next presidential elections in France will be held in April 22, 2012, with a run-off on May 6 if necessary.

And while the FN thrived as a party of opposition under her father, observers in France say Marine Le Pen wants her party to gain real political influence in government. “She doesn’t see herself in the opposition for the next 20 years,” said Jean-Yves Camus, a political scientist and expert on France’s far right. “She is part of a generation that is really hungry for power.”

In April, Le Pen turned heads when opinion polls made her the frontrunner candidate in next year’s election. French media fretted at a potential repeat of 2002, when the FN advanced to the second round of that year’s presidential poll. However, French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP and the main opposition Socialist Party have since switched into campaign mode, subsequently driving down her numbers.

According to a September 6 public opinion survey by French polling agency Ipsos, Le Pen is on pace to win between 17 and 18% of first-round votes next April. While her support has faded since last Spring’s surveys, she is trailing the incumbent Sarkozy by only five percentage points.

Talking politics

The stiffer competition has compelled Le Pen not to take a break from her incredibly busy schedule of public appearances. She packed nine major television and radio interviews into the three days before the Front’s conference in Nice, pounding away at the issues she hopes will keep her on top of the news cycle.

Since she took over the helm of the party, Le Pen has avoided the inflammatory remarks about minority groups that made her father infamous. However, an unflinching anti-immigration stance still tops the party’s agenda. Questioned on Thursday about surging rent prices, Le Pen told France 2 television that unchecked immigration, both illegal and legal, was to blame.

Le Pen said the Nice conference would take a look at immigration but also tackle security issues, the country’s rising public debt and the falling purchasing power of the French consumer. The event’s programme list also includes discussions on such topics as “Weakening democracy in France” and “The failure of the Anglo-Saxon multicultural model”.

UMP in the crosshairs

When Le Pen attacks, her target is invariably the president and his ruling UMP party. In Nice, she is looking to drum up enthusiasm among the Front's faithful while also trying to appeal to the conservative voters who traditionally throw their support behind Sarkozy’s party.

She is keen to talk about key pocketbook issues because “increasing purchasing power” was a key promise of Sarkozy's in 2007. “She knows pretty well that the votes she needs belong to the conservative fringe of the UMP, who are halfway between Sarkozy and herself,” said Camus. “Her only hope for 2012 is that the UMP will break up into different groups.”

Her influential father has already demonstrated that, where the UMP-FN election battle is concerned, he is ready to come out swinging. In an incident the week before the event in Nice, Jean-Marie Le Pen slammed local UMP Mayor Christian Estrosi for scheduling a UMP meeting for the same weekend as the National Front conference. In a September 6 statement, Jean-Marie raged that Estrosi “does not conceal his aggressive intentions, violating the rules of democracy and common courtesy”.

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