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article imagePeace trumps fear for voters in French town where priest slain

By BĂ©atrice LE BOHEC (AFP)     Apr 20, 2017 in World

In the working-class French town traumatised by last summer's jihadist murder of a priest, voters feel more in tune with radical left "peace" candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon than with anti-immigrant firebrand Marine Le Pen.

The first jihadist attack on a church anywhere in Europe came just 12 days after the Bastille Day truck massacre in Nice that claimed 86 lives, part of a relentless series of killings in France over the past two years.

Le Pen, head of the far-right National Front (FN) who is riding high in the polls ahead of the first round of the presidential election on Sunday, says her policies would best defend France against such attacks.

But Bernard Auvray, a 72-year-old pensioner who used to volunteer on social projects with murdered priest Father Jacques Hamel, 85, says he has no doubts about voting for Melenchon.

"Father Hamel was most upset about racism, poverty, the lack of love between human beings," Auvray told AFP, sitting on a pew in the church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray where two 19-year-olds slit Hamel's throat.

The Communist-backed Melenchon, who has enjoyed a late surge in the polls, is also the "closest to the working class", Auvray added.

The shocking murder took place on July 26 last year while Hamel was celebrating mass for a handful of worshippers on a Tuesday morning.

One of the assailants actually lived in Saint-Etienne, a town near the northern cathedral city of Rouen with population of nearly 30,000.

Both had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group in a video made before the attack, which ended with them being gunned down by police.

Saint-Etienne  which is near the northern cathedral city of Rouen  is a working class town which has...
Saint-Etienne, which is near the northern cathedral city of Rouen, is a working class town which has been a Communist bastion since 1959

Many residents of this working-class town, which has been a Communist bastion since 1959, say that while the attack traumatised them it did not change their politics.

Their main concerns -- shared across France -- are economic, with growth stagnant and joblessness stuck at around 10 percent for years.

"We are a pretty tight-knit community and the tragedy affected all of us," said 39-year-old Linda Royer, who was recently laid off from a logistics company. "But that hasn't changed how I'll vote."

Royer, sipping coffee at a bar and betting shop in the town centre, said she was especially looking for candidates who will not "stuff their pockets".

- 'Emphasis on peace' -

"Even with a heavy heart, reason can be strong, and residents are showing their fortitude," explained the communist mayor Hubert Wulfranc, 60, saying Melenchon appeals to Saint Etienne because of his "emphasis on peace".

Melenchon, leader of the hard-left France Insoumise (Unbowed France) party, has enjoyed a late surge in the polls and is now among the top four candidates with a chance of getting through Sunday's first round.

The top two vote-getters will proceed to a decisive runoff on May 7.

A self-styled "peace candidate", Melenchon advocates France's withdrawal from NATO.

At the same time, the 65-year-old's calls for a fairer distribution of wealth and defence of the working class also strikes a chord in Saint-Etienne.

"Here I see job insecurity getting worse every month," Mayor Wulfranc said. "You see it in people's faces, in their clothes... The despair is cumulative."

- 'It'll be too late' -

Le Pen -- who has shared frontrunner status with centrist Emmanuel Macron for weeks -- "wants to drag some of our compatriots down," the mayor argued.

Jean-Luc Melenchon chose the quirkiest event of the day  campaigning from a barge
Jean-Luc Melenchon chose the quirkiest event of the day, campaigning from a barge

"Manipulated anger (against immigrants) is starting to be replaced by reasoned anger... that comes from seeing who benefits from the (economic) crisis," he added.

At the town's main mosque where around 50 faithful were gathered, Hamadi Ladkar said he too was looking for a candidate who might improve lives.

"A lot of people are leaning towards (Le Pen's) National Front, if only because of immigrants, but I am looking for someone to help turn France around, where work can be found like before."

For his part, Olivier Alarson, a former nightclub manager who now drives a cab, is bucking the Saint-Etienne trend and voting for the first time for Le Pen, who is currently tipped to go through, but ultimately to lose in the decisive May 7 runoff.

"When the priest had his throat slit, they put out candles, flowers and little hearts... Come on, get real!" said Alarson, who was baptised by Hamel 45 years ago.

"When people realise what they are up against, it will be too late."

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