Terrorist Attacks, Immigration Debates Push French Voters Rightward, Boosting Le Pen

L’ISLE-SUR-LA-SORGUE, France—Wedged between river tributaries in southeastern France, L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is known for its cobblestone streets and its sun-dappled outdoor market.

But ahead of local elections this month, the debate in this small town, and in others across France, has centered on the fallout from the beheading of a schoolteacher near Paris last fall by a Chechen refugee as well as the slaying of churchgoers in Nice weeks later by a Tunisian migrant.

Across France questions over the place of Islam in French society and tensions over immigration have come to preoccupy many and have pushed the electorate rightward.

In response, the centrist government of President

Emmanuel Macron

has leaned toward more conservative policies, cracking down on mosques and other Islamic organizations that it says practice Islamist separatism, Mr. Macron’s term for what the government says is a movement that seeks to override civil laws with religious ones.

French President Emmanuel Macron met with soldiers after a knife attack in Nice last year.


Eric Gaillard/Press Pool

But the rightward shift of the electorate is giving a boost to

Marine Le Pen,

leader of the anti-immigration National Rally party. Ms. Le Pen has long blamed a string of attacks in recent years on what she considers soft immigration policies that she says allow radical strains of Islam to take root in the country and fuel violence—a link the Macron government rejects.

A recent opinion poll showed 71% of French people were opposed to welcoming new immigrants, compared with 64% in 2018. The share of respondents who believe that welcoming migrants increases the risk of terrorist attacks also rose to 64% from 53%, according to the poll.

“We need more security, and less immigration,” said 62-year-old Bruno Ducres, who was selling earthenware and pottery at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue’s open-air market on a recent afternoon. As millions of French voted this Sunday in regional elections across the country, Mr. Ducres said he planned to cast his ballot for Ms. Le Pen’s candidate,

Thierry Mariani.

“He says out loud what others are thinking to themselves,” Mr. Ducres said.

Mr. Mariani led in the first round of elections on Sunday, garnering an estimated 35.7% of the votes in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, a region in the southeast of France, nestled between the Mediterranean Sea and the Alps.

Marine Le Pen and Thierry Mariani campaigned in Six-Four-les-Plages on Thursday.


christophe simon/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Establishment conservatives took an estimated 29.3% of the overall vote across the country, followed by National Rally with an estimated 19.1%, amid record-high abstention rates. The Socialist Party and the Green Party won respectively 16.5% and 13.2% of the votes, according to early estimates. Mr. Macron’s party came in fifth with an estimated 10.9% of total votes.

Ms. Le Pen is trying to position her party as the standard-bearer of conservative politics by recruiting candidates with establishment credentials and focusing the public debate on civic issues—such as security, immigration and radical Islam—that divide Mr. Macron’s centrist ranks. In an email to supporters last month, Ms. Le Pen made an “appeal to all sincere conservative personalities,” calling on them to unite behind her bid to challenge Mr. Macron in national elections next year.

The approach is part of Ms. Le Pen’s efforts to reassure voters that she and other leaders from her National Rally party have turned the page on the party’s anti-Semitic past and are ready to govern. Mr. Mariani, 62, was a stalwart of the conservative Les Républicains party, having served as a minister under President

Nicolas Sarkozy,

before Ms. Le Pen tapped him to run for president of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur.

A Mariani win would place Ms. Le Pen’s party at the helm of a regional government for the first time ever. It would also signal she is capable of overcoming the front républicain, the decades-old tactic of establishment parties uniting behind a single candidate to defeat far-right candidates. Mr. Macron cruised to victory in 2017 after Les Républicains and the Socialist Party—longtime rivals—threw their support behind him.

Les Républicains and the Socialist Party have cast doubts on their willingness to unite behind Mr. Macron when he faces off with Ms. Le Pen in the spring of 2022. A Harris Interactive poll of 1,295 people conducted between June 4 and June 7 showed Ms. Le Pen garnering 47% of the vote in a runoff with Mr. Macron compared with 53% for the incumbent. That is a much narrower margin than Mr. Macron’s 66% to 34% victory in 2017.

“I gave Macron a chance, but I won’t make the same mistake twice. I’ll vote for Marine Le Pen next year,” said Marie-Claude Sureda, a 66-year-old retiree from the port city of Marseille.

Mr. Macron’s party backed Renaud Muselier in the contest against Mr. Mariani instead of fielding its own candidate.


nicolas tucat/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

For the regional races, Mr. Macron has tried to paper over the cracks in the front républicain. His party backed Les Républicains’ candidate, Renaud Muselier, instead of fielding its own candidate to run against Mr. Mariani in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur.

Mr. Mariani has sought to turn Mr. Macron’s support into a political liability, painting Mr. Muselier as a crony of the president who he says is soft on crime. Sitting at a cafe before a tree-lined square, Mr. Mariani said he had no choice but to leave Les Républicains to stay true to himself.

“Today they are constantly betraying their beliefs to get closer to Macron,” Mr. Mariani said of his former party. Ms. Le Pen, he said, “has the clearest electoral program when it comes to what matters: security, immigration, justice. And she will have the courage to follow through.”

Mr. Muselier said an alliance with Mr. Macron was the only way to beat the National Rally, adding: “There are historical moments that demand we come together.”

In the runoff, which is due to take place next Sunday, an Ipsos Sopra Steria poll of 1,000 people conducted between June 3 and June 7 showed Mr. Mariani edging Mr. Muselier regardless of whether the socialists and greens support him.

Mr. Mariani is a familiar face in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. He grew up in a nearby town where he was mayor for a decade and a half, and represented the area at the National Assembly until 2017, when he lost his seat.

As a member of Les Républicains, Mr. Mariani was a vocal proponent of stricter immigration policies. He unsuccessfully proposed an amendment to France’s constitution that would have allowed authorities to strip convicted criminals of their French nationality. Mr. Mariani also stood out for his support for Russian President

Vladimir Putin

and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and for his frequent visits to Syria, where he met with President

Bashar al-Assad.


What would be the implications of a win by the National Rally in local elections? Join the conversation below.

In 2019, Ms. Le Pen recruited him to run on the National Rally’s ticket for the European Parliamentary elections, where he won a seat.

A win in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur could embolden other establishment politicians to join Ms. Le Pen, said Christian Montagard, who recently left Les Républicains and is running in a down-ballot race on Mr. Mariani’s ticket. It could also help Ms. Le Pen advance her party’s turn away from the legacy as a movement rooted in xenophobic and nativist rhetoric. She expelled her father,

Jean-Marie Le Pen,

who once described Nazi gas chambers as a “detail” of World War II history, and rebranded the party from National Front, its moniker under her father.

“The National Rally has nothing to do with the National Front. It’s now a party like any other,” Mr. Montagard said.

Write to Noemie Bisserbe at [email protected]

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