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French far-right rallies in north in bid to rebound

France’s National Front (FN) has seen its presidential candidate sink in the polls. Gathering its forces at a convention in Lille this weekend, the far-right party hopes to regain the support needed to make a mark ahead of April’s presidential vote.


Special correspondant, Lille

French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen and her ranks have gathered in the northern French city of Lille in a bid to inject her flailing campaign with a much-needed shot of momentum.

Few people in France would affirm that the far-right party is dead: the FN's 43-year-old presidential hopeful remains in third place, behind incumbent French President Nicolas Sarkozy and frontrunner Socialist candidate François Hollande.

Yet at one point in January, she was just a couple of points behind Sarkozy, and she has seen her ratings dip sharply in the last few weeks.

According to a study released earlier this week by French polling agency BVA, Le Pen is on track to get 15 percent of votes in the first round of the presidential ballot on April 22. This figure has dropped from as much as 24 percent in March 2011.

Le Pen’s weakened position has now awoken a sense of urgency among FN members gathered in Lille.

‘With Marine - Headed toward hope' is this weekend convention's tag line. The slogan is supposed to reflect the idea that French people have lost faith in their elected leaders, but it also encapsulates what is a crucial historical moment for the National Front, for Le Pen's success or failure in 2012 could well determine the future of the party.

“I'm here to show Marine [Le Pen] support,” pipes Sebastian Alloin, who travelled to Lille for the far-right National Front's (FN) presidential convention on Feb 18-19.

Wearing a sharp pinstriped suit, Alloin, the director of a slaughtering house in the Somme department in northern France, admits he was a long-time supporter of the anti-immigration group but became a party member after Marine Le Pen took over last year as party chief from her father, FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen.

“I want to show people that the National Front is not dead, and that we'll do whatever it takes to get Marine into the Elysée [presidential palace],” Alloin says.

Battle on the right

Le Pen, a former lawyer, faces her toughest challenge in the form of President Sarkozy, who officially launched his re-election bid earlier this week.

In what has been viewed as only the first of many upcoming campaign jabs, the incumbent plans to unveil his campaign manifesto in the southern city of Marseille on Sunday -- the same day as Le Pen's landmark speech in Lille.

Banners hung on the walls of the convention centre's spacious and brightly lit hallways show that the far-right candidate will play to the party’s traditional strengths of immigration and security while attacking Sarkozy’s record on public debt and unemployment.

According to Eric Bonnet, director of opinion polls at BVA, it is clear that Marine Le Pen and Sarkozy will be vying for the same right-wing electorate in the weeks ahead. “Fifteen percent remains, historically, a normal figure for the far-right for presidential elections,” Bonnet explains. “The exception was 2007, when Sarkozy stole a lot of those voters and won the overall election.”

For the public opinion expert, the far-right candidate seems to have hit a plateau in public opinion, but there are a few trends that may allow Le Pen to rebound before voting day.

Since taking over from her father, Marine Le Pen has tried to turn the National Front into a more mainstream opposition by creating a strict code of conduct, removing extremist elements from her party and playing a more populist card that she says is neither left nor right but "patriotic".

In speeches to supporters and in sideline conversations with reporters in Lille, National Front members endlessly repeat that the mainstream parties are scared to death of Marine Le Pen 's apparent shift in policies.

Le Pen announced a raft of policies in January to balance France's books, including taxing imports, tapping the central bank for cheap loans instead of debt markets and giving French citizens priority over foreigners for jobs.

Her anti-euro and protectionist stance has struck a chord, especially among working class voters who have become disillusioned by economic hardship since the start of the global financial crisis.

“The far-right voters who backed Sarkozy seem to be returning to the National Front,” Bonnet says. “We have also seen Marine Le Pen's ability to win over eurosceptics, or the voters who look toward the EU with concern, and who have been left somewhat orphaned. Today they are gravitating toward Marine Le Pen.”

In the weeks ahead, the big question for Marine Le Pen will be whether she can in fact outperform her father as a candidate, or whether she will end up leading a fringe political party with no real power.

500 signatures

Apart from reviving the campaign, party veterans are also caught up in the struggle to secure the 500 signatures from mayors before March 16 that would make Marine Le Pen an official candidate.

While the National Front claims it has experienced an unprecedented wave in new memberships since last year “getting the signatures is our big concern,” says Annie Lemahieu, who stands out among the crowd in her bright-yellow winter jacket and red-rimmed glasses: “It would be unfortunate for our democracy if [Le Pen] is prevented from running.”

Lemahieu is somewhat of a hero among the FN crowd. She attracted media attention last year when her Workers’ Force (FO) union kicked her out after it found out she was an active member of the far-right party.

She is now a candidate for parliament in June’s legislative elections.

Like others party leaders, Lemahieu says small town, non-affiliated mayors are under unprecedented pressured to deny their endorsement to Marine Le Pen. “[Mayors] look me straight in the eye and say 'I”m scared to give my signature' because they can later be denied funds for local projects,” she says.

“We're not lying about the lack of signatures,” seconds Franck Sailleau, who heads a chapter of the FN's youth movement in the Essone department near Paris.

Sailleau, who has come to Lille with his brother Pierre, is referring to allegations by critics who say that the FN exaggerates their endorsement deficit during every election to garner public sympathy, but especially for the media hype.

“We're confident we'll get [the signatures], but there is still work to be done,” Sailleau adds, in what sounds like a rehearsed phrase.

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