The Sunday Telegraph

Le Pen claims to be detoxifyin­g the French far-Right

Our party is not ‘the scary one’ any more, says leader of National Rally ahead of country’s regional elections

- By Henry Samuel in Saint-Laurent-du-Var

In sweltering campaign headquarte­rs in Toulon, southern France, Marine Le Pen beamed from behind Ray Bans at her latest catch. A minister under the conservati­ve Nicolas Sarkozy, the 62-year-old by Ms Le Pen’s side was the perfect flagbearer for her drive to poach figures from the mainstream Right.

“They try to peddle fear about us but nobody is scared of Thierry Mariani,” Ms Le Pen, 52, said to the softly spoken candidate.

She is backing him to run ProvenceAl­pes-Côte d’Azur, the vast French region encompassi­ng the Southern Alps to glitzy Saint-Tropez and Cannes on the Riviera and the restive banlieues of Marseille to the West.

Her National Rally party, or RN, runs about ten towns in France, including nearby Fréjus, where she received a warm welcome at the morning market.

But it has never won one of the country’s 13 regions, which command a huge budget for managing schools, transport, culture and tourism. These are up for grabs today and next Sunday, along with assemblies for 96 department­s, or counties.

Until now, mainstream parties have kept the far-Right out through a “republican front”, namely tactical voting, with the Left often pulling out to help the mainstream Right win. That strategy may fail for the first time thanks to Mr Mariani, who jumped ship to be elected to the European parliament with Ms Le Pen’s group in 2019. “Nobody sincerely believes the French republic would be in danger if the National Rally and people like me clinched this region,” he claimed.

Victory in PACA, as the southern region of five million is known, would be a coup for Ms Le Pen. It was an electoral prize that eluded both her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of RN (then called Front National), and her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, who lost by a whisker in 2015.

She hopes victory will prove a stepping stone to the Élysée Palace in next spring’s presidenti­al race, which is shaping up once again as a duel between her and Emmanuel Macron.

Her party is polling to come first in six regions in round one but may then fall foul of tactical voting, except in PACA. Polls suggest Mr Mariani will come first in round one with about 42 per cent of the vote and could clinch the decisive second round in a week’s time, although the result could go to the wire.

President Macron’s LREM party is unlikely to win any regions but has members on the lists of several centre-Right candidates.

“The witch hunt against RN is a lazy ploy,” Ms Le Pen said. “If we win a region, it will remove another argument against us. Thierry Mariani is doing in this region what I hope to do in presidenti­al elections. I will form a government of national unity if the French entrust me with the presidency.”

That remains an unlikely prospect given Mr Macron’s approval ratings, which have received a boost as France exits lockdown earlier than expected.

But clinching a region would bolster Ms Le Pen’s claim to have “dedemonise­d” the party and further weaken the once-mighty centre-Right party, Les Républicai­ns, according to Jean-Yves Camus, a far-Right expert at the Jean-Jaurès Foundation.

“There is a whole plank of Republican voters in the South that is seriously considerin­g voting for Thierry Mariani, who was one of their own not so long ago,” he said.

The mainstream Right has already been mauled by Mr Macron, who headhunted a string of Republican­s for his centrist government, including two successive prime ministers.

Ms Le Pen’s aim is to poach its remaining hard-Right rump, starting in PACA where her views on immigratio­n, security and Islam are widely supported.

“If RN can demonstrat­e that the ‘republican front’ – the most frequent response to the far-Right for the past 30 years – no longer functions, Ms Le Pen can say, look, our detoxifica­tion drive is a success: we are a party like any other,” Mr Camus said.

Mr Mariani’s main rival, Renaud Muselier, the incumbent Right-winger who is backed by the Macron camp, urged voters not to be lulled into thinking the far-Right was now palatable. At his final rally in SaintLaure­nt-du-Var, outside Nice, he said his rival was a Le Pen “slave” and “puppet” backed by a bunch of “skinheads and dimwits”.

He accused Mr Mariani of having a soft spot for autocrats including Vladimir Putin, whose decision to annex Ukraine he supported, and Bashar al-Assad, whom he visited during Syria’s bloody civil war. “A vote for Mariani is a leap into a black hole with no parachute,” he said.

With abstention rates expected to pass 60 per cent, the mood in the streets of Saint-Laurent-du-Var was more apathy than fear.

Serge de Sousa, 83, said: “I’ve always voted but it doesn’t change a thing. All politician­s around here want to do is look after themselves.”

Graziella Bremen, a postal worker who votes Green, said the far-Right would lose: “The French don’t like change, they’re scared of it. We moan and groan and at the last minute say, better the devil you know.”

 ??  ?? Marine Le Pen says there is a ‘witch hunt’ against her National Rally party
Marine Le Pen says there is a ‘witch hunt’ against her National Rally party

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