Posted on March 19, 2021

Can France’s Far Right Rise to Power? One Mayor Shows How.

Norimitsu Onishi and Constant Méheut, New York Times, March 16, 2021

Riding high in the polls ahead of the next presidential election, feeling they’ve won the battle over ideas, smelling blood in the Élysée Palace, leaders of France’s far right cocked their eyes across the land at perhaps the one thing standing between them and power: beavers.

That is what some French call the voters who, time and again, have cast political differences aside and put in power anyone but far-right candidates — raising a dam against them as real beavers do against predators. Voters did precisely that in 2014 in Perpignan, a medieval city of pastel-color buildings on the Mediterranean near the border with Spain.

But last year, the dam broke and Perpignan became the largest city under the control of the National Rally, the far-right party led by Marine Le Pen. Today the city of more than 120,000 is being closely watched as an incubator of far-right strategy and as a potential harbinger of what a presidential election rematch pitting Ms. Le Pen against President Emmanuel Macron could look like.

A victory for Ms. Le Pen would be earth-shattering for France, and all of Europe. It has been an article of faith in France that a party whose leadership has long shown flashes of anti-Semitism, Nazi nostalgia and anti-immigrant bigotry would never make it through the country’s two-stage presidential electoral juggernaut.


{snip} Recent polls show her matching Mr. Macron in the first round of next year’s presidential contest and trailing by a few points in a second-round runoff. In a poll released Thursday, 48 percent of respondents said Ms. Le Pen would probably be France’s next president, up seven percentage points compared with half a year ago.

“They’ve been forming dams since 2002 now,” said Louis Aliot, the mayor of Perpignan and a longtime National Rally leader. “So to ask them again to form a dam with Macron — but what’s changed? Nothing at all.” {snip}

In 2014, many voters on the left and right had successfully united in a “Republican front” against Mr. Aliot — the same way they raised a dam against Ms. Le Pen in the 2017 presidential election won by Mr. Macron.

But in the intervening years, Mr. Aliot succeeded in softening the party’s image in Perpignan and won new converts, even as disillusioned beavers stayed home or left blank ballots on voting day in 2020. Mr. Aliot won handily — in a rematch against his opponent of 2014 who, like Mr. Macron, had tilted rightward and marketed himself as the best check against the far right.


The effort by the party to wade into the mainstream has presented a special quandary for Mr. Macron. Sensing the political threat, and lacking a real challenge on his left, he has tried to fight the National Rally on its own turf — moving to the right to vie for voters who might be tempted to defect to it. Doing so, Mr. Macron hopes to keep the far right at bay.

But the shift also helps destigmatize the far right, or at least many of its messages, argue National Rally leaders, some members of Mr. Macron’s own party and political analysts. Mr. Macron’s strategy may have the unintended consequence of helping the National Rally in its decades-long struggle to become a normal party, they say.

“It legitimizes what we’ve been saying,” Mr. Aliot said. “These are the people who’ve been saying for 30 years: Be careful, they’re nasty, they’re fascists, because they target Muslims. All of a sudden, they’re talking like us.”


Among the former beavers of Perpignan were Jacques and Régine Talau, a retired couple who had always voted for the mainstream right, helping build the dam against the far right in Perpignan in 2014 and in the presidential election of 2017.


But disillusioned and weary of the status quo, the Talaus, like many others, voted for the first time for the far right last year, drawn by Mr. Aliot’s emphasis on cleanliness and crime, saying their home had been broken into twice.


Mr. Lebourg, the political scientist, said that Mr. Aliot had also won over conservative, upper-income voters by adopting a mainstream economic message — the same strategy adopted by Ms. Le Pen.

Since taking over the party a decade ago, she has worked hard at “dédiabolisation” — or “de-demonizing” — the party.


Still, the party wants to toughen migration policies for foreign students and reduce net immigration by twentyfold.

It also wants to ban the public wearing of the Muslim veil and limit the “presence of ostentatious elements” outside religious buildings if they clash with the environment, in an apparent reference to minarets.

In Perpignan, Mr. Aliot has focused on crime, spending $9.5 million to hire 30 new police officers, open new stations, and set up bicycle and nighttime patrols, responding to an increase in drug trafficking.