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Post Attacks, More French Voters Lean Right Pre-Election


France's President Hollande has seen a spike in his popularity as people rally around the French government after last month's terrorist attacks in Paris, but there are regional elections tomorrow. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports that the Paris attacks and waves of migrants arriving in the country could lead to a strong showing by the far-right National Front.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-EU National Front is up in the polls, riding a wave of fear and economic angst. Analysts say it looks poised to win its first regional vote, possibly taking two to four of France's 13 regions. One of those regions, in northern France, has been ruled for decades by the left.

PIERRE MAUCHAMP: Of course, it would be a big earthquake to see, suddenly, the extreme right taking the power in this region.

KENYON: Pierre Mauchamp is deputy editor of The Voice of the North, based in Lille. He says high unemployment, a complacent Socialist Party and smarter politicking by the National Front are combining to bring the far-right to the edge of victory in the North. And he worries that similar things are happening in other parts of the country, too.

MAUCHAMP: I think that the France is changing. It's dramatic, and it's a problem.

KENYON: A slow train from Lille takes you to one of the first towns around here to elect a National Front mayor.

Welcome to the main square in Henin-Beaumont. The square's dominated by a huge stone cathedral from the early 20th century. Many shops are closed, and streets are quiet. The shops that are open are largely staffed by immigrants. There was once such a need for miners here that workers poured in from North Africa, Eastern Europe. But the last coal mine closed over a decade ago, and unemployment has really skyrocketed. When the Socialist mayor got caught in a corruption scandal, voters seized the chance to turn hard right and vote in the National Front.

In a working man's cafe near the square, beers are being poured, and men line up to bet on the horse races being shown on TV. A middle-aged local businessman says he'll share his views if his name isn't used. He doesn't want his business to suffer. He says the town voted for the National Front, not because they're all racists or against Islam. He thinks it was mainly voter disgust at politics as usual, after so many years of center-left and center-right mayors.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through interpreter) Considering that the left and right did nothing for us for years and years, a lot of people said - why not? Maybe the far right can do something better. And in any case, it couldn't get any worse.

KENYON: The children and grandchildren of the migrants who worked in the mines now own or manage shops. Food store owner Brahim Zania doesn't get too worried by the hype around the National Front. He says people are afraid after the Paris attacks, and the far right is using both the attacks and the migrant crisis to score political points.

BRAHIM ZANIA: (Through interpreter) Look, some politicians come here, and they say France for the French, we don't want foreigners. But look around you, there are so many foreigners. There are Poles, Eastern Europeans, North Africans. Look, people came here to work in the mines. They were tired. They had kids. What did they expect?

KENYON: Malika Lagi a 21-year-old woman wearing a Muslim headscarf says she's experienced here, from hard stares to anti-Muslim language. She says she doesn't necessarily blame the National Front for that, but she is troubled by the party's sudden rise.

MALIKA LAKIA: (Through interpreter) After the terrible attacks in Paris, it's becoming so hard to explain that this doesn't have anything to do with Islam, and it's not connected to us at all. If you look at the polls since the attack, Marine Le Pen and the National Front are rising.

KENYON: In more liberal Paris, these developments are troubling. In a crowded cafe, I met Jean-Yves Camus who has studied radical politics for years. He says a National Front victory at the regional level would be a huge shock to French politics.

JEAN-YVES CAMUS: If you want to compare, it would be like an extreme right party having a majority in a state, like, let's say, California. And if you want to compare with social situation and the situation of the economy, it would be like if an extreme right party had taken all of, let's say, Detroit.

KENYON: In the past, the French electorate has beaten back surges by the far right. If the National Front leads one or more regions after Sunday's first round, the second round, later this month, will become very interesting indeed. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.
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