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France's far right party is poised to come first in June's European Parliament vote

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Far-right parties in Europe are poised to do well in European Parliament elections next month, so well that the once common populist refrain of leaving the EU has been replaced by talk of transforming the bloc from the inside. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports from France.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Crowds in the southern French city of Perpignan line up to get into the rally of the Rassemblement Nationale. This one-time fringe party presided over by the Le Pen family is in top place ahead of the vote for the European Parliament, with double the score of President Emmanuel Macron's centrist party. Didier Saquet is a longtime National Rally Party member.

DIDIER SAQUET: (Through interpreter) We're already at 31% in the polls, and it's not just in France. It's in Italy, Spain, Sweden, everywhere. We're going to have hundreds more seats and take the head of Europe. That's going to change a lot of things.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOD SIZZLING)

BEARDSLEY: Saquet is lunching before the rally with his 28-year-old daughter and some friends. Duck breasts and steak sizzle on a food truck grill. They wear jackets that say - counting the days till June 9 - and imagining how their vote could change things, starting with immigration.

JEAN LOUIS REYLET: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "We should have stopped immigration 20 years ago," says retired funeral home director Jean Louis Reylet. "We were warned that Islamists will take over if we don't, and it's happening." Saquet's daughter, Marine, agrees.

MARINE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "It's a question of our security," she says, referring to recent terrorist attacks in the name of radical Islam. Didier Saquet has been a party member since the '80s. He says it's changed completely since Marine Le Pen took over from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 2011. She broke with his extremist rhetoric. A court sentenced him three times for saying the Nazi gas chambers, which killed millions of Jews, were a mere detail of history. She even changed the party's name.

SAQUET: (Through interpreter) We have so many more followers today - lawyers, doctors, pharmacists, lots of police, people we would have never attracted before.

BEARDSLEY: Saquet says the party is no longer seen as fascist, and polls do show that for the first time, those who consider the party a danger to democracy is smaller than those who don't. French society has also drifted to the right in recent years. Macron's mainstream party recently passed an immigrant bill so hard-line critics say it could have been penned by the far right. There's another reason for the improvement in this populist party's fortunes...

JORDAN BARDELLA: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: ...Jordan Bardella, the National Rally's new president. The 28-year-old replaced Marine Le Pen two years ago.

(BOOING)

BEARDSLEY: The son of an Italian immigrant, Bardella often contrasts the European Christians, who he says integrated into French society, with the mostly Muslim African migrants today, who he says have not.

BARDELLA: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "When we are in charge, every migrant boat will be systematically turned around and sent back," he says, urging people to turn out and vote in June.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in French).

BEARDSLEY: "This is our home," chants the crowd. Nonna Mayer is an expert on the far right.

NONNA MAYER: The advantage of Jordan Bardella is that he is not a member of the Le Pen family.

BEARDSLEY: She says Bardella is an essential part of Marine Le Pen's de-demonization strategy for the party. It also helps that he's sharp, polished and young. Pierre-Romain Thionnet is head of the youth wing for the National Rally Party.

PIERRE-ROMAIN THIONNET: (Through interpreter) More than half the people at our rallies now are younger than 30. Bardella has had a generational effect on the party. The youth recognize themselves in his message.

BEARDSLEY: Far-right specialist Mayer says the current context in France is good for the two main issues on which this party thrives - law and order and immigration.

MARINE LE PEN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: While no longer party president, Marine Le Pen is still a core party fixture. She's said to be focused on winning the 2027 presidential race, when term limits will keep President Macron from running again. Le Pen fires up the crowd against Brussels.

LE PEN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "The European Union is not Europe," she hammers. "It's a market, and it's 70 years old. Europe is a civilization, and it's been around for thousands of years." Young activist Tao Le Poivre identifies with this message. The clean-cut youth wears a prominent crucifix necklace, not common in this staunchly secular nation. Le Poivre feels France's Catholic roots are being forgotten.

TAO LE POIVRE: (Through interpreter) The French and all Europeans want to be masters in their homes. For too long, the European Parliament has imposed immigrationist (ph) laws that are hurting our civilizations.

BEARDSLEY: But that's about to change, he says. Just two weeks ahead of the European Parliament elections, far right and radical populist parties like this one are currently in first or second place in two-thirds of the EU's 27 nations. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Perpignan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.
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