- - Thursday, November 26, 2015

PARIS — The terror attacks in Paris earlier this month left the nation reeling and the government struggling to respond, but it has also offered a political windfall to Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front, France’s far-right political party.

“This all plays in her favor,” said Nonna Mayer, head of research at France’s National Center for Scientific Research. “For years she has been hammering about the dangers of immigration, saying France could not welcome flows of refugees that are potential terrorists.”

The timing could pay dividends as early as next month, when French voters go to the polls in regional elections. Campaigns for local offices took a sharp turn toward security, immigration and related issues after the Islamic State’s Nov. 13 killing spree in the streets of the capital that claimed 130 lives and injured hundreds of others.

“The attacks reinforced what she says about the fear of terrorism, the association between Islam and terrorism,” said Ms. Mayer. “Fear is highly efficient in raising the ratings of the National Front.”

National Front candidates are now leading among the handful of parties on local ballots in France. A TNS Sofres opinion survey on Wednesday forecast that the party would garner 29 percent of the votes in the first round of local elections on Dec. 6.

Political analyst Christophe Barbier estimated that the party gained as much as 10 percent in the polls after the attacks.


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For some, the National Front’s popularity is concerning.

“I think Le Pen will rally more votes, unfortunately,” said Sarah Plessy, an English teacher. “We are in such a racist, ignorant and xenophobic country that these types of events can only benefit the National Front. Le Pen has been handed ammunition on a plate.”

But the party’s gains in the polls reflect a savvy political strategy, however.

After the attacks, Ms. Le Pen and her colleagues maintained a somber tone and refrained from directly attacking the Socialist government of French President Francois Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls. At the same time, however, they nonetheless made clear that they had been sounding alarms about Islamic extremism for years.

“She tried to stay moderate and to show that she was able to deal with the situation, to have the stature of a politician,” said Ms. Mayer.

The tactic helped Ms. Le Pen look dignified in the wake of the terrorism. Other more mainstream opposition parties appeared petty by quickly blaming Mr. Hollande and Mr. Valls for failing to prevent the attacks 10 months after al Qaeda-linked terrorists stormed the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and took hostages in a Jewish market in Paris.

Ms. Le Pen’s sole criticism of the prime minister after the attacks was downright muted compared to her ordinarily fiery rhetoric. “Had the government any sense of honor, they would, I believe, have handed in their resignation,” she said on French television a few days after the attack.

More recently, however, Ms. Le Pen, who took over the reins of the party in a messy power struggle with her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 2011, has been more vocal in her criticism of the Socialists.

“What have they done to fight arms trafficking, to fight Islamist ideology?” she said on Wednesday during a campaign stop in Hayange in northeastern France. “Since Charlie Hebdo, none of the attempted attacks have led them to take any action. They remain incapable of changing their mental software.”

Socialist Party deputy Malek Boutih criticized Ms. Le Pen’s approach as cynical. “They have no concrete program as other parties do,” said Mr. Boutih. “Their intention is not to be judged on what they really are, but on the idea people have of them. As soon as [Ms. Le Pen] becomes specific, she scares people off.”

But during her campaign stop, Ms. Le Pen mocked Mr. Valls for saying a day earlier that Europe couldn’t accept anymore refugees from the Middle East and North Africa — the United Nations estimates that a total of 1 million will reach the continent this year — while failing to propose the sweeping changes that she believes are necessary to stop the influx.

“They have cherry-picked a few measures from the National Front because they knew they would not find solutions elsewhere, but this has been done without any coherence, without any vision,” she said.

The National Front is now on track to control the Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie and the Alsace-Champagne-Ardenne-Lorraine regions in northern France and Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur in the south. But while they would represent significant gains, the gains are not seen here as true stepping stones to the party’s ultimate goal: winning the presidency in 2017, when Mr. Hollande’s term is up.

But success in the local elections could foretell more gains if trends continue. Ms. Le Pen won around 18 percent of the vote in the last French presidential elections three years ago. Last year, however, the National Front won the most seats in European parliamentary elections, where turnout is often lower and the more committed National Front voters can make a difference.

“If she benefits in the next regional elections, it is still one and a half years before the presidential elections,” said political commentator Olivier Faye. “It is very difficult to forecast whether this dynamic with be maintained until then. She might be able to continue to surf until the presidential elections. But she could be stopped short.”


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