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Le Pen woos Nice voters with vision of 'happy Europe'

Yann Coatsaliou, AFP | French presidential election candidate for the far-right Front National (FN) party Marine Le Pen arrives for a campaign meeting, on April 27, 2017 in Nice.

French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen said on Thursday she wanted to replace the “grey” European Union by a “happy Europe", in a speech that focused on her plans to build back border checks, but did not mention her anti-euro stance.


One aide said the positive spin on Le Pen’s euroscepticism was meant to reassure voters who had supported conservative candidate François Fillon, who did not qualify for the May 7 run-off, and try and convince them to vote for her.

“The EU is grey, like the colour of the Brussels technocrats’ suits, Le Pen said, adding: “I want to give it colours because my Europe is happy, diverse, colourful, it’s got the face of its peoples.”

Le Pen, who wants to hold a referendum on France’s EU membership after six months of negotiations to turn the bloc into a loose cooperative of nations, did not announce any shift in her policies and reaffirmed that what she wanted was a “Europe of free nations, of cooperations".

But while she repeatedly talked of her plans to take France out of the Schengen border-free area, she did not mention returning to the Franc national currency - which is also among her policies.

With a majority of French voters opposed to leaving the euro, the Le Pen campaign has not insisted on that part of her platform over the past months.

Differing views on  Europe

Fillon came third behind Le Pen and first-placed Emmanuel Macron in the first round with about 20 percent of votes which Le Pen and Macron must now fight over.

During the first-round campaign he said that he wanted to step up border controls and make some changes to the EU, but he also several times severely criticised Le Pen’s anti-euro stance.

Macron is in favour of closer European integration, although in a series of interviews on Thursday he sought to present a tough position on countries he felt do not play by the rules.

Playing on fear

Keeping mum on her plans to reinstitute the French franc is not the only card Le Pen is playing in the hope of appealing to the traditionally rightist voters of Nice; she is also trying to capitalise on security fears here in the wake of an Islamic State group attack that killed 86 people there last July.

That’s an exploitation that has angered some residents of the Mediterranean resort town.

Dominique Eche was on the Promenade des Anglais on Bastille Day and had to jump down to the beach below to avoid the truck that ploughed into the crowd, but when the 62-year-old children’s sports coach thinks about the presidential election, and Le Pen’s insistence that her tough line on security will prevent such atrocities, he gets angry.

“I saw the Nice attack from the inside and I find it appalling to try and benefit from such attacks, to say: ‘It wouldn’t have happened if I’d been in power’,” Eche said on Thursday, speaking hours after Le Pen’s rally in Nice.

Next to him, workers were erecting concrete bollards to make sure trucks cannot access the pavement there any more.

The FN has said some of the Islamist attacks that have killed more than 230 people in France since 2015 would have been prevented had it been in power, thanks to a platform that includes locking up French-born suspected jihadists and expelling foreign ones as well as scrapping the European Union’s open-border arrangement.

If Eche isn’t buying it, that rhetoric does resonate with some voters in Nice, where one in four voted for Le Pen in the first round of the presidential election on Sunday, against 21.3 percent nationally.

Inflammatory language

Describing the city as a “martyr of Islamist terrorism", Le Pen told the rally her first move if elected would be to reinstate border controls, to wide applause from a crowd of a few thousand.

“I have asked for it after each attack ... how can we think we are protected if terrorists can move around freely, if weapons can circulate freely?,” she said, detailing a
law-and-order platform she said she would apply “without weakness".

Le Pen’s fear-mongering seems to be working.

Local FN representative Lionel Tivoli said FN membership in Nice’s Alpes-Maritimes department had jumped from 740 two years ago to 3,500-4,000 now, driven in particular by the attacks.

“What strikes people is that this attack took place where they live, here in the Alpes-Maritimes,” Tivoli said in the FN’s local headquarters. “We’re not safe anywhere anymore.”

Hubert, a 70-year-old FN supporter who said he does not miss a chance to see Le Pen at a rally, said the attacks had reinforced his resolve to vote for her. “We need to feel safe,” he said, adding derogatory comments about Arabs.

But 79-year-old Nice resident Roger Blanc, who backed Fillon in the first round and will vote Macron in the second, took a very different view.

He said: “I was very shocked by the attacks. But what would she (Le Pen) have done about it? What would she have done? Nothing. It’s all just talk.”

While opinion polls all say that Macron will easily beat Le Pen in the second round, the head of France’s south east region and deputy Nice mayor Christian Estrosi, a conservative, warned against considering it was in the bag for the young centrist.

“Le Pen can win,” he told Reuters.


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