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March 28, 2014 2:07 pm
Historic Avignon in the south of France, with its monumental papal palace and much sung-about old bridge, has suddenly become a very modern microcosm of the political ambitions of the country’s far-right National Front party.
In Sunday’s second round of local elections, the FN is locked in a nail-biting battle for the town of 90,000 people with President François Hollande’s floundering Socialist party and the UMP, the mainstream centre-right party of former president Nicolas Sarkozy.
Tough lines on crime and immigration, FN staples, rank high on the manifesto of Philippe Lottiaux, the party’s candidate for mayor in Avignon. But his top promise is to lower local taxes. His candidature is a far cry from the crude racist overtones of the “old” FN under Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder and former leader.
Mr Lottiaux is an incarnation of moves by Marine Le Pen, who succeeded her father in 2010, to detoxify the FN and recast it as a respectable nationalist movement with the aim of becoming a new force in French politics by attacking both the traditional left and right.
Through campaigns like Mr Lottiaux’s, the party is hoping on Sunday to build on its breakthrough in last week’s first round, adding Avignon and a number of other towns to the mayor’s seat it won outright last Sunday and pave the way for a potential victory in May’s European parliamentary elections.
“It was very smart to send Lottiaux to Avignon,” said one local official. “He has a very different tone to Jean-Marie Le Pen and even Marine.”
Dressed in a suit, open-necked shirt and with a scarf looped round his neck in classic Parisian style, Mr Lottiaux is, in fact, a product of the very French political establishment Ms Le Pen so often rails against. He is an énarque, a graduate of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, the elite graduate school that counts Mr Hollande among its alumni.
He worked until recently for a prominent UMP mayor in the Paris area. He admits he hesitated before agreeing to become an FN candidate (he has not joined the party). So why did he switch sides from the UMP?
● President François Hollande is set to reshuffle his government next week after an anticipated heavy defeat in Sunday’s second round of voting in municipal elections. His Socialist party should hold Paris, but could lose Strasbourg and Toulouse, along with numerous other towns
● The centre-right UMP, struggling in some places like Avignon, is nonetheless hoping to gain up to 100 cities and towns, giving it a majority of mayoral seats in towns above 10,000 in population. Strasbourg, Toulouse, Amiens and Reims are among its top targets
● Marine Le Pen’s National Front is looking to extend its breakthrough in the first round. Apart from hoping to win several more town halls, it is aiming to capture more than 1,000 local council seats across the country to help it build a national political infrastructure
“I’m worried about the state of the country. I want France still to exist in 30 years’ time,” he says. “The policies of the left are disastrous and the UMP is not a credible opposition. The only person at the moment who offers a new approach is Marine Le Pen.”
Detoxification certainly seems to be working in Avignon. At an earnest two-hour debate with his rival candidates at Avignon university on Thursday evening, Mr Lottiaux, an amateur stand-up comedian, evinced scarcely a peep of opposition from the students, a good number of whom came up to wish him well afterwards.
“You don’t refuse to shake hands with a communist because of what Stalin did,” remarked Mr Lottiaux afterwards, insisting the FN was no longer racist. His euro-hostile, pro-small business message, with calls for tough immigration controls, strongly echoes that of Britain’s UK Independence party.
Mr Lottiaux came top in the first round of voting, just ahead of Cécile Helle, the socialist candidate. He sucked votes away from Bernard Chaussegros of the UMP, who came third despite the party having held the mayor’s seat in Avignon for the past two decades.
A dramatic effort to derail Mr Lottiaux this week came from Olivier Py, director of Avignon’s annual international theatre festival. He declared he could not see how the festival could continue under the FN.
Mr Py was expressing a widely held worry about damage to the image of Avignon, seat of the papacy in the 14th century and made famous by the song Sur le Pont d’Avignon. But his outburst may have rebounded in Mr Lottiaux’s favour.
Ms Helle, canvassing for votes in the hard-up Saint Jean district of drab apartment blocks, well beyond Avignon’s attractive old town, grimaces at those who try to stigmatise the FN.
“You don’t win that way. People vote for the FN because of anger and disaffection with all of the ruling political class,” she says.
What Ms Helle is up against is what the tourists in Avignon do not see: its 20 per cent unemployment, per capita income far below the national average, low skills rates and high immigration. It is in areas like these that the FN is on the march.
“In Avignon you have all the elements that provide fertile ground for the party,” says Laurent Hubert of the regional chamber of commerce.
Ms Helle acknowledges that much of the blame is falling on the government, which is braced for heavy losses elsewhere on Sunday to the UMP, as well as another advance for the FN.
“People rejected Sarkozy and now they are rejecting François Hollande because they don’t think his policies are dealing with their everyday problems,” she says.
If Mr Lottiaux wins on Sunday it will send a shudder through the main parties: it will be a trailer for Ms Le Pen’s dream scenario on the national stage in the presidential elections in 2017: to overtake the UMP and challenge a deeply unpopular socialist party for the spoils.
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