Far-right mayor touts Perpignan as harbinger of Le Pen's France

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PERPIGNAN, France, April 8 (Reuters) - In the southern French city of Perpignan, the far-right mayor Louis Aliot says he has succeeded in de-demonising his party's image and even won new supporters as he bolsters police numbers, hosts literacy classes and cleans up the streets.

While his critics say they have seen no significant improvements in Perpignan under Aliot, according to the mayor his city of 120,000, the largest in France run by the far right, is a harbinger of what lies ahead when voters head to polling stations in a two-round presidential election this month.

Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, Aliot's former romantic partner, has patiently softened her longtime populist image and is now polling within just a few points of President Emmanuel Macron. Never has she been so close to the French presidency. read more

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While a Le Pen win would send shockwaves through swathes of France and across Europe, her success in this campaign has been in connecting with common folk, persuading them she is a moderate person who will protect them from the forces of globalisation, and not a hardliner from the fringes.

Aliot dismissed her opponents' cries that the party's positions were too extreme to govern the country, pointing to his own city.

"There hasn't been a revolution, there hasn't been a civil war," he told Reuters hours before Le Pen held her final campaign rally ahead of Sunday's first round vote. read more

"It shows that our management works."

In the 2017 presidential election, Le Pen made the run-off before voters from the right and left largely united to block her from power in the second round, a phenomenon dubbed 'front republicain' that has put the brakes on her and her party's successes becoming more mainstream.

However, that same 'front republicain', which for years had kept the far-right out of Perpignan's city hall, crumbled in the municipal vote in 2020 when discontent over the cost of living, crime and immigration propelled Aliot to victory.

Polls suggest Macron should not rely on this phenomenon either in this month's election.

Policing has been central to Aliot's security drive. Perpignan's city hall has planned to increase spending for municipal policing to 11 million euros in 2022, compared to 8 million in 2019, his spokeswoman said. It voted to acquire 35 bulletproof vests for officers and expanded allowances to top police officials.

But in an area of France where unemployment runs at over 11% compared to a national average of 7.4%, Aliot also pointed to additional literacy classes aimed at helping inhabitants in ethnically diverse low-income neighbourhoods assimilate in France as evidence of the party's softer touch.

NO POLICY LURCH

On the streets of Perpignan, views regarding Aliot's performance were mixed.

Pascale Advenard, a 60-year-old social worker who ran in the 2020 municipal election under the left-wing "Workers' Fight" banner, said Aliot had done little to improve the life of workers.

"Maybe he has a populist programme but he does exactly the same things as the others," Advenard said.

Sauveur Granero, 63, said he was pleased with Aliot's management of the city and approved of the mayor's work to support the police.

"He seems to me like an active mayor, and he is concerned for his people," he said.

Making her third attempt to gain power, Le Pen has surged in the polls as she focuses her campaign on putting more money in people's pockets just as rising inflation squeezes household budgets.

The most recent polls show Le Pen winning between 47% - 48.5% of votes in an eventual second round against Macron.

While Le Pen has scaled back her euro-skeptic rhetoric, her talk remains tough on Islam and immigration. She also says only French citizens should have access to welfare benefits and be given priority for social housing and jobs.

Nonetheless, a presidential run by Eric Zemmour, an ardent nationalist whose anti-immigration, anti-Islam manifesto has seen him outflank Le Pen to the right, has helped detoxify her image in the minds of some voters.

Jean Paul Alduy, a former centre-right mayor of Perpignan was shocked when the city elected a mayor from the far right.

"I never imagined during my political career that this city would be led by the Front National," Alduy said, using the Rassemblement National party's former name which Le Pen changed in 2018 in a bid to shed the party's hardline, antagonistic image and broaden its appeal.

He agreed that Aliot had not departed markedly from his predecessors in his actions, but said the stakes were different at a national level, citing foreign relations as one example.

"Marine Le Pen's anti-European stance is clear in every one of her speeches," he said. "Marine Le Pen would be the end of Europe."

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Reporting by Makini Brice; editing by Richard Lough and Raissa Kasolowsky

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