Posted on April 30, 2012

French Village Embraces an Extremist

Devorah Lauter and Kim Willsher, Los Angeles Times, April 29, 2012

The drive to this picturesque village nearly 200 miles southeast of Paris winds through forests and farmland where hawks stand guard on roadside fence posts and egrets glide across empty pastures. With a population of just 60, Brachay’s residents say they are “the forgotten ones.”

One person did remember them: Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front party. The town thanked her with a record 72% vote in her favor during the first round of France’s presidential election last Sunday.

That day, Le Pen, 43, surprised the country by placing a strong third behind the two front-runners, President Nicolas Sarkozy and his Socialist challenger, Francois Hollande. Her 18% of the vote transformed the leader of the anti-immigrant nationalist party from an electoral also-ran into a key player in the runoff May 6.

With Sarkozy trailing in polls that give Hollande a lead of as much as 10 percentage points, the incumbent desperately needs to woo Le Pen’s supporters to save his political career. Consequently, the National Front’s pet themes — immigration, security and national identity among them — have shot to the top of the election agenda.


Le Pen has little interest in keeping Sarkozy, whom she detests, in power, and hopes that if he loses his right-of-center Union for a Popular Movement party will implode. With the National Front looking to pick up seats in parliamentary elections in June, the party aims to position itself as a credible opposition. But there is no love lost between Le Pen and Hollande either.

In Brachay, where stone cottages are clustered around a steepled church, a well-groomed central square and a large National Front poster, villagers were thrilled when Le Pen visited in early April. Suddenly they were not forgotten, but part of something much bigger.


But Le Pen did come, attracting neighboring villagers and winning over new admirers with what the mayor described as her accessible style and willingness to “get off her podium and talk to everyone.”


Immigrants “are a problem; they are becoming more and more numerous,” Gerard Marchand said. “Foreigners have seven to eight kids. We have two. In 200 years, who’ll be in whose home?”

Most villagers in Brachay struggle to make ends meet on about $1,300 a month, on average. “It’s true, we are the forgotten ones,” the mayor said.


European Union President Herman Van Rompuy has criticized what he calls the “winds of populism” blowing across Europe, fanned by “extremist movements.”

The Netherlands is heading toward a general election in September with Geert Wilders, leader of the anti-immigrant, anti-Islam Freedom Party, in third place and rising.

Farther south, debt-strapped Greece is witnessing the rise of the Golden Dawn ultranationalist movement. {snip}

A recent report by Amnesty International identified widespread prejudice in Europe. The human rights group said political leaders, rather than combating fear of Islamic extremism, have been pandering to prejudice against Muslims in a quest for votes.