RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
As France nears its presidential election next month, its far-right party has chosen its candidate. She comes with name recognition and the name is Le Pen. The National Front's Marine Le Pen takes on the role her controversial father had for decades. Yesterday, the candidate kicked off her campaign in one small town, where her protectionist, anti-immigrant policies found a receptive audience. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley was there.
GROUP: (Chanting in foreign language)
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Supporters warmly welcome Marine Le Pen at the municipal hall in the town of Henin Beaumont. The crowd is mostly older and white. Many wave French flags. Some have brought their dogs along. Le Pen told them she would fight to put France back on the right track.
MARINE LE PEN: (Through translator) I will fight against all that wounds France and defend the France I love. I am a citizen but also a mother. And like all mothers, I want my children to live in security. I want to restore order and tranquility to this nation.
BEARDSLEY: The fiery, 42-year-old lawyer and divorced mother of three took over as leader of the National Front last year from her aging father, Jean Marie Le Pen, who founded the party 40 years ago. Observers say the younger Le Pen is modernizing the macho world of far-right politics.
Appealing to a new generation, Le Pen rejects what she calls outdated ideas like homophobia. She has also broken with her father's anti-Semitism. But the party's anti-immigrant, anti-globalization platform continues to resonate among many working-class voters like Catherine Petillion.
CATHERINE PETILLION: (Foreign language spoken)
BEARDSLEY: In times like this, we can't keep giving welfare benefits and jobs to immigrants, she says. I'm sorry, but the French have to come first.
This is Le Pen country. Town's like Henin Beaumont in the former mining belt used to power France. But the coal mines all shut down by the late 1980s, and there were no more jobs for the waves of immigrants who have flocked here. Today the region's unemployment rate - around 20 percent - is double the national average. Shops and houses are shuttered. Two giant slag heaps loom outside of town.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR SHUTTING)
BEARDSLEY: Inside Le Royal, a bar on the town's main street, 68-year-old retired truck driver Richard Emile says he's not afraid to say he's voting for Le Pen.
RICHARD EMILE: (Through Translator) She has good ideas and can do a lot for this country. We wouldn't be in this mess with the euro if she'd had anything to say about it.
BEARDSLEY: Le Pen advocates leaving the eurozone, a message that has played well here during the economic crisis. Just six weeks before the country's two-round presidential election, polls show Le Pen in third place, with anywhere from 15 to 19 percent of the vote.
Her strong showing has pushed President Nicolas Sarkozy to the right. He's called for tighter borders and less immigration. But most people here say they don't trust him anymore.
55-year-old Kamel Sebou is also at Le Royal. His parents emigrated to Henin Beaumont from Algeria decades ago to work in the coal mines. He says both Le Pen's have tried to capitalize on people's misery here.
KAMEL SEBOU: (Foreign language spoken)
BEARDSLEY: Her father had hateful words and we suffered under him, says Sebou. They say she's different, but their followers seem the same. Sebou says with all the anti-immigrant talk of this election campaign, he fears a rise in fascism in France.
Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.