TOULOUSE, France (Reuters) - Minutes after commandos stormed the apartment building where al Qaeda-inspired gunman Mohamed Merah was holed up and shot him dead, neighbor Jean-Marc was out on the street venting his anger.
“They criticize Marine Le Pen for her views on immigration and security but look at what’s happening. Now people will listen,” said the cafe owner in this southern city, where Merah plotted the murder of three soldiers, a rabbi and three Jewish children.
Jean-Marc is exactly the kind of voter National Front leader Le Pen had in mind with her crime and immigration agenda - even before Merah’s attacks. Toulouse’s ethnic make up - Catholics, Jews and Muslims of North African origin - is mirrored in cities across France.
Far-right candidate Le Pen has slipped in opinion polls before the presidential election and no longer threatens to eliminate President Nicolas Sarkozy in the first round on April 22. But her ferociously loyal support base means she will still play a crucial role in the May 6 runoff that is expected to pit Sarkozy against Socialist Francois Hollande.
Since the Toulouse shootings Le Pen has railed against a system in which a 23-year-old man managed to verse himself in radical Islam, visit a Pakistan training camp and amass an arsenal of guns. “How many Mohamed Merahs are on the boats and planes that arrive in France every day filled with immigrants?” she said. “How many Merahs are among the immigrants’ children who don’t integrate?”
Security concerns over the shootings have if anything boosted Sarkozy, however, nudging the law-and-order president up by a point or two in some polls as a majority of the public judged that he handled the crisis ably.
Le Pen is on course for around 15 percent in the first round, polls suggest, more than 10 points behind Sarkozy.
That means that for Sarkozy, Le Pen is right where she is most useful to him - not too strong and not too weak. If all goes to plan for Sarkozy, Le Pen’s supporters will rally behind him in the second round runoff.
A 43-year-old former lawyer, Le Pen drew a strong following when she took over as head of her party from her father Jean-Marie in January 2011. Her error was to stray too far from the National Front’s roots with a program that focused on the economy and dumping the euro single currency. As she slipped in polls, Le Pen swung to focus more on immigration. But the tactic came too late and failed to convince.
“People have not been convinced by her economic program nor by her pledge to leave the euro, and they also wonder about who she would govern with. She remains stuck in the protest vote,” said political scientist Pascal Perrineau at Sciences-Po university.
As Le Pen dithered over strategy, Sarkozy swung to the right - much as he did in his 2007 campaign - with a pledge to halve the number of foreigners entering France legally each year and increase deportations of illegal immigrants.
“There are too many foreigners in our country,” Sarkozy said in a speech on March 11 - the same day Merah shot his first soldier, to avenge the army’s role in Afghanistan.
“Our system for integrating them is getting worse as we can no longer find them a home, a job or a school,” Sarkozy said, threatening to pull France out of Europe’s Schengen open-borders system unless Brussels toughened up border security.
Within two hours of Merah’s death on March 22, Sarkozy announced measures to combat Islamist indoctrination and recruitment via the Internet. Unlike Le Pen he shied away from blaming immigration as a root cause of radical Islamist violence. Polls show Sarkozy has stolen voters from Le Pen.
“The fact Sarkozy has taken her campaign themes destabilized her, and it’s at that point that her team decided to go back to fundamentals,” said sociologist and far-right specialist Sylvain Crépon. “The father said in 2005 that a nice National Front doesn’t interest anybody and his daughter is proving that theory.”
RESPECTABILITY APPEALS Nicolas Bay, who at 34 has been a National Front member for almost 20 years and advises Le Pen on immigration, is adamant she can turn the tide. “With Marine we have a new generation that has credibility. She has people around her that can be given responsibility,” he said.
After taking the helm, Le Pen sought to broaden her party’s appeal. She presented an economic program encompassing policies to balance public finances and giving French citizens priority over foreigners for jobs. Unemployment has risen under Sarkozy to higher than before the financial crisis, so her line on jobs found fertile ground. At a February rally in the northern industrial city of Lille, blue-collar workers mixed with a good sprinkling of middle-class couples in their thirties. In a region where Socialists and Communists have long had the upper hand, Le Pen’s appeal is less about immigration than about the failure of mainstream parties to solve problems. Henin-Beaumont is one of several nearby towns where many are angry at factory closures that left thousands jobless. A 17 percent jobless rate here is nearly twice the national average. Rows of red brick houses are quiet with only a few old slag heaps on the town outskirts a reminder of the area’s mining history. The town hall’s turrets are held up by netting as the town cannot afford the 800,000 euros needed to fix them. Not making it to the presidential second round may work to Le Pen’s long term advantage. Her father stunned the nation in 2002 by beating Socialist Lionel Jospin into third place to reach the runoff. But he was then trounced by Jacques Chirac and five years later struggled to make an impact. Le Pen must keep her vote at around 16 percent to have a solid base to aim for June’s parliamentary elections and beyond.
“We must create the conditions for victory. If it’s not 2012 then it will be 2017,” Marine’s father, Jean-Marie said.
Reporting By John Irish; Editing by Catherine Bremer and Janet McBride