The Le Pens have become royalty for fearful faithful in south of France: Don Murray

Don Murray visits the city of Carpentras in the south of France, where the far-right rhetoric of the National Front is growing in popularity. Despite the party's success, some supporters are coy about showing their true colours to outsiders in the land of "liberty, equality, fraternity."

Despite party's popularity, some supporters are coy about showing their true colours to outsiders

Carpentras, a small city in the south of France, is the headquarters of MP Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the granddaughter of the founder and first leader of France’s far-right National Front, and niece of the party's current leader, Marine Le Pen. The party's views are popular in the region. (Associated Press)

"You know the town?" the French woman asked. I had come in to buy food.

I said I did, having had a house in the region for years.

"So you know the situation in Carpentras?"

I talked of the economic crisis, of streets with closed and shuttered shops.

She shook her head. That wasn't the problem. She then spoke of a terrifying encounter where young men — young "Arab" men, she specified — challenged a couple of tourists in the middle of the day, announcing that the street was theirs and off-limits to outsiders. Then there were threats.

"The couple fled," she said. This was her example of the problem and why the city is in decline.

I said I know people who live in Carpentras. They hadn't mentioned any such trouble. She looked at me; I had failed the test.

Carpentras is a small city of 30,000 in the south of France, an hour's drive from Marseille and two from Nice. It's also the headquarters of Carpentras MP Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the granddaughter of the founder and first leader of France's far-right National Front. The present leader of the party is Marine Le Pen, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen's aunt.
Marion Maréchal-Le Pen signs autographs after a political rally in Carpentras on Nov. 10, 2015. (Reuters)

Carpentras, in the minds of many like the woman I spoke with, is a divided city. And fear is the wedge. Fear reinforced by economic insecurity. Unemployment among young people stands at 25%. Many are convinced outsiders — Muslims — have grabbed scarce jobs.

The divisions are more visible than 20 years ago. It is a city with a Muslim minority of up to 15% (the statistics are approximate because the French census cannot ask questions about ethnic background or religious affiliation).

Today, many more Muslim women walk the streets veiled, even young women born in France.

And at the Carpentras weekly market, which spreads through the streets and is the oldest continuing weekly market in the country, the stands where men and women of North African origin sell their vegetables are found increasingly in the streets at the edge of the old town.

Rhetorical attack

The National Front is powerful here, as it is throughout the south. In the "élections regionales" in December 2015 — votes to elect powerful regional councils in the country —  the party took 52% of the vote in the second round in Carpentras. Across the whole region, which sweeps from north of Carpentras and Avignon down to Marseille and Nice, it only lost the second round to control the council when the other parties formed a "republican front" behind the centre-right party.

It's perhaps not a coincidence that the National Front vote jumped in those elections. They took place just a month after the murderous attacks in Paris that killed 130 people.
A man cries at a memorial for those killed in last week's deadly truck attack in Nice, France. (Reuters)

In the wake of the Nice attack, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen returned to the rhetorical attack.

"If we don't kill Islamism, it will kill us. These scenes of horror will become a daily reality."

'Nightmare for the French'

The deadly attacks and the Islamists were only the tip of the iceberg. Maréchal-Le Pen then denounced "French citizens on paper only" and Muslims in general.

"It's not possible to assimilate entire peoples with their foreign culture and religion," she said. Their presence is leading to "a nightmare for the French of aggression, insults and attacks" like the one in Nice.

The rhetoric works, in fact it works so well that a lot of it has been taken up by mainstream parties. The government talks of "war" against Islamism, and opposition leaders don't even wait for the end of the three-day period of national mourning to launch bitter attacks on the government for its lax approach to terrorism.

Even talk of reimposing border controls and far more draconian laws of search, seizure and punishment for suspected terrorists is now part of the mainstream French political vocabulary. The rhetoric of division, of suspicion and of punishment, long the calling card of the National Front, is now echoed across the political spectrum. It's a major victory for the party.

'The abuse has increased'

Insecurity cuts both ways. As the rhetoric heats up, Muslim men who've lived and worked in the region for decades tell the media they feel the effects. They have become fearful.

"We are the worst affected by the attacks," one said. "The abuse has increased."

"People I know," another man named Mohammed said, "people who used to embrace me, now avoid me. They're cold."

There is, of course, a real and dangerous problem with Islamists, particularly in the south of France. Some estimates suggest up to 2,000 have left France to fight for ISIS in Syria in the past two years. And some have found their way back into France.

Greatest danger

But Patrick Calvar, the head of the DGSI, France's internal intelligence service, pointed to something else when asked about the greatest danger he feared.

In testimony to a French parliamentary commission in May, he said his nightmare is a violent backlash following more murderous terrorist attacks. The backlash, he said, might take the form of armed attacks on Muslims by ultra-right militias, some of which have informal links with the National Front.

"Then what you will have is confrontation between the far-right and the Muslims," he said. "Not with Islamists, let me be clear. With Muslims."
Soldiers from the French Foreign Legion patrol on the Promenade des Anglais on the third day of national mourning to pay tribute to victims of the deadly truck attack on Bastille Day in Nice. (Reuters)

For the moment, National Front supporters, like the woman I met, are coy around outsiders about showing their colours. Many know the party's view of Muslims as second-class citizens sits badly in a country that officially stands for "liberty, equality, fraternity." They vote for it, in ever greater numbers, but they don't advertise it.

But sometimes there is no hiding their leanings. When two young men entered a leading food shop in Carpentras and said they were Le Pen aides and needed some delicacies for a family feast, the shop owner fluttered about and assured them the family would have everything it desired.

In this corner of the world, the Le Pens have become royalty.


Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.