Anti-immigrant movement strong in France

France's ruling UMP party staged a high-profile rally in Nice on Sunday in a direct challenge to the far-right National Front(FN) as the Front's charismatic leader was addressing her party's annual conference in the city.

President Nicolas Sarkozy's party gathered some of its biggest guns in the Mediterranean city, including party chairman Jean-Francois Cope, presidential advisor Henri Guaino and Ecology Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, who spearheads the UMP's drive against the FN. The rally was organised by Nice's mayor Christian Estrosi, a former UMP minister.

Marine Le Pen [above], who took over from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen as FN leader in January, is a close third behind Sarkozy and the leading socialist contender in opinion polls for the 2012 presidential election. She briefly led the polls in the spring, but has now fallen back to just below 20 percent.

She has softened the FN's image, toning down her father's anti-immigration rhetoric and expelling from the party young hotheads who had been photographed making the Nazi salute.

UMP leaders said this was purely cosmetic. "About those who are trying to make people believe they have a new programme, more realistic and more tolerant, just because the first name has changed, I say do not be confused. The name is the same. The ideology is the same," Estrosi told supporters in an open-air arena near Nice's beachfront.

His speech was interrupted several times by young far-right supporters shouting slogans and waving banners reading "No mosque in Nice".

Nice is a UMP stronghold but in the second round of local elections in March, the FN won more than 40 percent of the vote on the Cote d'Azur. "Right and far-right are playing cat and mouse on their home turf," wrote local daily Nice-Matin.

Le Pen presents what she says is a radical economic alternative to the government. She wants France to exit the euro, which she says is overvalued by at least 40 percent and is making it impossible for French companies to compete internationally. She also wants to bring back import tariffs to protect French producers from cheap Chinese imports.

Her shift in emphasis is a response to growing fears in France that austerity and Europe's debt crisis could eat away at the array of social services treasured by many citizens.

But in front of a crowd of hundreds of cheering supporters Le Pen called for tighter immigration laws. "It is in the interest of France to stop all immigration and even to reverse the flow," she said. "We do not need foreign workers because there is no work and in these difficult times what little work there is must first benefit our own people," she said to rapturous applause.

Le Pen made little reference to the UMP on Sunday, but told reporters on Saturday its choice of venue for its rally showed "their fear and disarray". "They know they are losing their voters to us," she said.

French political parties traditionally hold conferences in late August and early September. Eight months ahead of the presidential election, they are gathering huge media interest.

Guaino denied the UMP had any fear of Marine Le Pen. "The only fear I have is that we may not be able to find the words and ideas to respond to the aspirations of the French people. If we do not find an answer to their despair, they will vote for extreme parties," he said. [That's a confession and a half!]


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