By Hugh Carnegy
Dressed in blue jeans and a navy blazer, a scarf looped casually round his neck, David Rachline is all smiles as he ushers a visitor into his mayor’s office in Fréjus, a town on France’s Côte d’Azur. A mild breeze carries the sound of a fountain outside the Hôtel de Ville through the window as he discusses the problem of dealing with the town’s debts without putting up taxes.
Yet Mr Rachline is no normal local politician. Two months ago he was elected to office in the biggest town that the far-right, fiercely anti-EU National Front (FN) has won in two decades. The mayor is also a leading symbol of a drive by Marine Le Pen, the FN’s leader, to shed the party’s image as an extremist movement with deeply racist roots. She is challenging France’s mainstream parties at a time of deep national disquiet over the state of the country, its economy and its relations with the world.
Just 26 years old, Mr Rachline, whose father is Jewish, presents an image without a hint of the thuggish bigotry with which the FN has long been associated. “Our aim here is to show who we really are, with sensible, moderate policies, far removed from the caricature of extremism that our political opponents and the media have tried to portray, and the French people understand this well,” he says.
The question is how far this policy of detoxification, or de-diabolisation, really extends and to what extent the FN, which has had periodic surges in popularity throughout its 40-year history, can sustain the upswing it has enjoyed since Ms Le Pen became party leader in 2010 to become a real contender for power.
The policy, strongly contested by the FN’s opponents, who say it is just a smokescreen, paid dividends in March when the party gained a dozen towns including Fréjus, in its best municipal election results since 1995.
It will be put to a new test on May 25 in European parliamentary elections. Polls in recent weeks have repeatedly shown the party vying with the centre-right UMP for what would be a landmark victory with potential echoes across Europe.
“Although Germany has become the dominant economic power, France remains the political heart of Europe. I believe what is happening here prefigures the orientation of Europe in the coming years,” Ms Le Pen says in an interview. [… read the full article here]