AULNAY-SOUS-BOIS/VERSAILLES, France (Reuters) - From small business owners to factory workers, a deep anger with economic malaise, having to vie with immigrants for jobs and benefits and put up with austerity seemingly imposed from Europe has spread through France, helping to drive the far-right vote.
Patrick S., 56, a forklift truck driver at a PSA Peugeot Citroen auto plant in the northeastern Paris suburbs, said people on the minimum wage had the right to ask questions.
“‘How is it that the other guy who is not working and has two children can take it easy on benefits when I am struggling to get by?'” he said.
His colleague Larbi Erraai, 32, said some of the nearly one in five French voters who plumped for far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen were expressing their economic despair.
“It’s a sense of being fed up with the president and his policies. Sarkozy has led us to economic disaster and this was a way for some people to show him that by voting for Le Pen.”
Erraai, a Frenchman of Algerian origin, said he had voted for Socialist Francois Hollande but worked with people who had cast their ballots for Le Pen out of a sense of impending doom.
Stuck between two highways, the sprawling complex employs 3,500 full-time workers and 10,000 subcontractors and is threatened with closure as Peugeot (PEUP.PA) seeks to trim excess capacity at production sites across Europe.
Sarkozy has been personally involved in pressing Peugeot to keep the plant open, but workers are skeptical.
“It’s going to close after the election. The machines will stop running. We don’t know what will happen,” said Erraai.
In the affluent, conservative town of Versailles, southwest of Paris, a hotel owner who declined to give his name said Le Pen was tapping popular anger among lower and middle-class French people, just as her blustery paratrooper father did before her.
“It’s a demonstration of discontent,” he said. “It’s about immigration, security and the fact that the French are no longer French. We are losing our identity.”
Nobody in the prim streets near King Louis XIV’s magnificent palace was shocked at Le Pen’s 17.9 percent score, although few of her sympathizers were willing to be quoted by name due to the enduring stigma of voting for the far right.
Restaurant worker Alex Benard, 18, said love of his country and anger over welfare scrounging had driven him to cast his first-time vote for the far-right.
“There are too many handouts. Unemployment is too high. There are too many people taking advantage,” he said, lamenting the fact the National Front’s extremist image still holds it back. “Everyone thinks it’s still neo-Nazi,” he said.
Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, founded the National Front in 1972, building on the anti-tax “Poujadist” movement of the 1950s. It began to pick up support in the 1980s, luring factory workers from the far left as the jobless rate soared.
Marine Le Pen’s tally on Sunday was the party’s highest score, beating her father’s 16.9 percent in the 2002 presidential election, which took him into a runoff vote against then President Jacques Chirac.
Anti-establishment groups on the far right and hard left are storming from obscurity across Europe by blaming the euro and the European Union for economic crisis and rejecting either austerity or bailouts for debt-laden states.
Hard leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon, backed by the Communist Party, drew tens of thousands to recent campaign rallies where he revived the battle call of the French Revolution and called for an anti-capitalist uprising.
As Melenchon draws as many from the urban middle class as from factories, Le Pen is also seeing more support from the mainstream, thanks in part to having given the National Front a softer image than her father.
At her party headquarters in Paris, the mix of people who turned out to celebrate her breakthrough on Sunday ranged from students to middle-class families, doctors and engineers.
“People are fed up, whether it’s jobs, welfare or the euro,” said a woman running a pancake stand in Versailles.
Outside the auto plant in Aulnay-sous-Bois, foreign-born workers said despair about the job market and pressure on welfare benefits from a steady influx of immigrants had boosted Le Pen.
“People think Le Pen will save their benefits,” said a 48-year-old man called Meziane, the son of a Moroccan immigrant.
“There are lots of young people who voted National Front. You have kids of 18 voting National Front who say ‘I want benefits for me, a true French person, and not for the foreigners’. That’s how they think,” he said.
Meziane added that France’s mainstream left-wing politicians did too little to address public concerns about the integration of immigrant communities, creating a “taboo” that was easily exploited by the far-right.
Some Le Pen sympathizers openly acknowledge that they are scared of Islam taking over France. The country has an estimated six million Muslims, a minority of whom are practicing, out of 65 million citizens.
Marcel Picazo, 62, a French citizen who lived in Algeria and returned to France aged 13 when the former North African colony won independence, said he has been a National Front voter since the 1990s and a party activist for the last 18 months because he felt a need to take action.
“In 2042 France will be almost completely Muslim, and I‘m scared of Muslims, it’s as simple as that,” said Picazo, who lives in a southeastern Paris suburb.
“I was born in Algeria and we had to get out because we didn’t want to become Muslim. That really shook me up. I don’t want the same thing to happen in France,” he said.
His fears were fueled when a 23-year-old Frenchman of Algerian origin, inspired by al Qaeda, shot dead seven people in southwestern France last month.
“There’ll be more and more Mohammed Merahs. It’ll end up like Algeria with more and more terrorist attacks,” Picazo said.
Additional reporting by Vicky Buffery; Writing by Catherine Bremer; editing by Philippa Fletcher