Behind the French disconnect

Le Pen fishes for votes in terror target Nice

Ms Marine Le Pen being applauded by supporters after her rally on Friday in Nice, the location of a terror attack last year.
Ms Marine Le Pen being applauded by supporters after her rally on Friday in Nice, the location of a terror attack last year.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NICE (France) • Ms Marine Le Pen chose a pointed location for her first rally since the first round of France's presidential election: Nice, where a Tunisia-born man killed 86 people last year by driving a truck into beachfront crowds celebrating Bastille Day.

Calling Nice a "martyr city of Islamic terrorism", Ms Le Pen told the thousands who packed into the Palais Nikaia stadium that she would "be the president who wages war on Islamist terrorists".

She pilloried her opponent, centrist Emmanuel Macron, for his support of the European Union's open-borders policy.

"How can we think we are protected if terrorists can move around freely, if weapons can circulate freely?" she asked. "I am the president who will protect you."

Ms Le Pen, who is trailing Mr Macron by a 20-point margin in most polls, is hoping that fears of terrorism will convince conservative voters to back her in the May 7 run-off. And Nice, with its memories of last year's attack and history of voting for centre-right candidates, seems like fertile ground.

  • 24%

    Percentage of Fillon voters who would choose Ms Le Pen in round two, according to a recent survey.

Ms Le Pen received 25 per cent of the vote in Nice in the first-round of the poll, beating Mr Macron by 5 points and coming in just behind the leader, Mr Francois Fillon of the centre-right Republicans.

"In every recent election, voters have favoured the Republicans," said Dr Marie-Ange Gregory, a political scientist at Nice University. "By having her rally in Nice, she'll be hoping to convince those on the hard right who voted for Fillon to turn to the National Front in the second round."

A recent survey found that 24 per cent of Fillon voters would choose Ms Le Pen in round two, making them her largest potential source of new votes. In a city where the memory of terrorism is still fresh, Ms Le Pen's message found its mark.

"I just cried and cried," said Madam Odile Tixier, 67, recalling the night of the attack. "Because Nice is my city. I'm Nicoise, my parents are Nicoise, my grandparents were Nicoise. It was very traumatising."

For 32-year-old Vincent, the attack had hit close to home, quite literally.

"The truck stopped 50m from my apartment," he said, asking not to print his last name for privacy reasons. "I keep thinking, it could've been me. It's shocking."

Mr Vincent voted in the first round for Mr Francois Asselineau, a minor candidate who campaigned on a platform to exit the EU. With Mr Asselineau out of contention - he received less than 1 per cent of the vote - Mr Vincent decided to vote for Ms Le Pen, and had come to a party rally for the first time.

"I've always liked the National Front," he said. "The attack just reinforced my conviction for the party."

Mr Arnaud, 50, also voted for Mr Asselineau in the first round because he found Ms Le Pen "a bit too xenophobic, a bit extreme". But in the second round, Ms Le Pen's tough stance on security outweighed his concerns about her more extreme position on immigration.

"I'm sick of watching people die," said Mr Arnaud, who also declined to give his last name because of privacy concerns. He was particularly incensed by last week's attack in Paris, in which a police officer was shot and killed on the Champs-Elysee. "We shouldn't have to put up with that," he said.

It's still not clear how much Ms Le Pen's message will resonate here. Dr Gregory said: "I know a lot of people who were extremely shocked by the attacks. But I don't think they would vote for Le Pen."

A poll taken just before the election found that voters in Nice were more concerned about unemployment than security. And in the end, Ms Le Pen's first-round score was only two percentage points higher than in the 2012 election, about the same increase as her surge in support nationally.

But some Nice residents have been convinced. Among them is 75-year-old Marc, who declined to give his last name. He is a hard-core Fillon supporter who said he could never vote for Mr Macron.

"There has to be a counterbalance against the left," he said.

"We've been too slack and, now, we're paying for it. It's going to be a tough fight against terrorism."

He also has high hopes for the National Front. "Brexit was great, Trump was great," he said.

"Le Pen could be great too."



A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 01, 2017, with the headline 'Le Pen fishes for votes in terror target Nice'. Print Edition | Subscribe