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French far-right clash in Riviera region ahead of polls

France's Mediterranean region known for hosting the Cannes Film Festival is the stage of a fierce battle between factions of the far-right
France's Mediterranean region known for hosting the Cannes Film Festival is the stage of a fierce battle between factions of the far-right - Copyright AFP Odd ANDERSEN
France's Mediterranean region known for hosting the Cannes Film Festival is the stage of a fierce battle between factions of the far-right - Copyright AFP Odd ANDERSEN
Eléonore HUGHES

France’s Mediterranean region, home to the Cannes Film Festival and palm-lined beaches that entice tourists from around the world, is seeing a ferocious battle between far-right factions for parliamentary polls this month with immigration the most contentious issue.

National Rally (RN) leader Marine Le Pen and TV polemicist Eric Zemmour achieved some of their highest scores in the April presidential elections in the sun-kissed Provence-Alpes-Cote-d’Azur (PACA) region.

But behind the Mediterranean glitz, high immigration and unemployment rates along with an electorate that believes France’s traditional right has lost its backbone make the region fertile ground for the far-right, experts say.

Paris-born Zemmour is standing in the constituency around Saint-Tropez, a famous resort town where Le Pen scored 24.1 percent and Zemmour 22.42 percent in the first round of the presidential vote.

Around 150 mostly retired locals and holidaymakers gathered around Zemmour as he held a meeting between the seafront and a petanque area in the coastal town of Le Lavandou on Friday.

The pundit-turned-politician drew cheers as he blamed local youths of North African origin for the chaotic scenes that marred the Champions League final between Real Madrid and Liverpool in Paris on May 28.

“What happened at the Stade de France is of course the consequence of the great replacement,” Zemmour told supporters, referencing a conspiracy theory according to which white Europeans are being replaced by immigrants from Africa and the Middle East.

“We were humiliated in front of the whole world. We need change,” 84-year-old Jacques, who did not want to give his surname, told AFP.

– ‘Nip in the bud’ –

Zemmour ended up with just seven percent in the first round of the presidential election, far below his ambitions, while Le Pen finished runner up, losing to President Emmanuel Macron in the second round with 41.45 percent.

Their electorate is different, said Virginie Martin, a political scientist from Kedge Business School. 

“Eric Zemmour’s electorate is clearly more bourgeois and Marine Le Pen’s is more working class,” Martin said, adding they also had voters in common. 

Zemmour had pushed for a parliamentary election alliance between his Reconquest party and the RN. But Le Pen has sought to distance herself from the 63-year-old convicted three times for inciting racial hatred. 

“The RN’s strategy is to nip Reconquest in the bud, because they are a direct challenge,” said Felicien Faury, who has a doctorate in political science from Paris Dauphine University.

Acting RN president Jordan Bardella, 26, held a rally on Saturday in the Vaucluse area, where Zemmour’s 23-year-old protege Stanislas Rigault is running for MP. 

“It’s a shame to campaign against Reconquest when there are clearly other opponents,” Thomas Nasri, part of Eric Zemmour’s campaign team, told AFP after the meeting at Le Lavandou. 

But Bardella on Saturday denied any provocation at a press conference before the rally in Cavaillon. 

“Reconquest chose to send candidates from Paris where we have long had elected officials who are legitimate representatives of the national camp,” he said.  

– ‘Struggling to make ends meet’ –

The far-right has historically done well in Provence-Alpes-Cote-d’Azur, where the National Front, since renamed National Rally, gained control of three towns in a key breakthrough in the 1995 municipal elections.

Many French people forced to flee Algeria, — the so-called “pieds noirs” — settled in the region after the former colony gained independence in 1962, and tend to vote for the far-right. 

“Many pieds noirs know what happened in Algeria. One voter told me, ‘I’ve already lost one country, I don’t want to lose another,” Zemmour told AFP, after campaigning at the main market in the resort town of Sainte-Maxime on Friday.

Zemmour is trying to convince voters who think Le Pen — who has sought to widen her support base by focusing on social and economic issues — has gone soft on immigration to back his party instead. 

Martin says the region is not just “that of the rich and the French Riviera”, and that there have been waves of de-industrialisation and unemployment that meant voters switched from the Communist Party to the RN. 

The region also has a high immigration rate. In 2017, Provence-Alpes-Cote-d’Azur had the biggest percentage of population who are immigrants (10.8) after the Paris region of Ile-de-France (19.5), according to the interior ministry. 

“I’m a working-class retired man, my income regularly decreases, my children and my grandchildren are struggling to make ends meet,” lifelong National Rally voter Gerard Marcaggi, 71, said as he sipped a glass of rose in Cavaillon.

“I would have liked her (Le Pen) to insist a bit more on the question of immigration, but we know that she has it up her sleeve and hasn’t forgotten it,” added Marcaggi.

AFP
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