Front National victories test expats' love affair with France
Brits are not Islamaphobic on the whole – so what are those with homes in France to make of the FN?
PERPIGNAN - Francophile Brits are attracted to the South of France by the street markets, the cheap rose, the sunshine. They don't buy homes here to have their lives run by anti-Semitic, neo–Fascist bigots who would be happier if all foreigners were sent packing and France could be truly French again.
Which makes the rise of the right-wing Front National rather awkward – because two of its biggest areas of influence are Provence and the Languedoc, both of them regions where Brits like to buy second – or even first – homes.
Of the 11 cities and towns won by the FN in last month's municipal elections, eight were in a band stretching along the Mediterranean coast from Frejus in the east (just up the road from St Tropez) to Beziers in the west.
So, what's the solution if the super-patriotic, anti-immigration, Islamaphobic, anti-EU scare politics of the FN are not your cup of tea?
(A) Sell up, go home and persuade yourself that Ukip, while sharing many of the FN's policies, isn't nearly as bad (Nigel Farage currently refuses to have dealings with the FN because of its anti-Semitic traditions). But there's a catch: the dire state of the French economy means there's no hope of getting your money back if you sell now.
(B) Stay put and persuade yourself that the modern FN under Marine Le Pen isn't nearly as vile as it was under her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who once proclaimed that the Nazi gas chambers were a mere "detail" of Word War Two history.
The Herault & Aude Times, an English language magazine aimed at expats living in the Languedoc, recently interviewed Louis Aliot, the lawyer boyfriend of Marine Le Pen and vice-chairman of the FN, on the eve of his bid to become mayor of Perpignan.
Has the FN really changed, Aliot was asked. "My impression is that the world, the context has changed," he replied. "We used to be thought of as extremists, but today our image is closer to the centre because the world has become more radical."
Aliot believes the party is more respectable thanks to Marine. He talks about the "transition" in 2011 when she took over the reins after her father's retirement. Because some extremist members of the party found her "too moderate", they refused to work with the new leader. "That enabled us to clear out some of the more turbulent elements."
But surely there's still a "whiff of something not quite respectable about the FN" as the Herault & Aude Times delicately put it to Aliot.
"It depends entirely on how many votes you have," he replied. "If you poll ten per cent, people feel they can call you Fascist. At 20 per cent they're less sure, but once you've got 30 per cent of the vote nobody calls you that."
The trouble with this justification, of course, is that it doesn't prove the FN has become more moderate – it suggests that more French people are being won over by its policies.
And that's the real worry for Brits trying to negotiate daily life in the South of France. Whether the local town hall is run by Socialists or the Front National is not the key issue: it's the realisation that, despite the cheery Bon appetit! when you pass your neighbour at the boulangerie, he or she could be supporting a party which, by British standards, is extraordinarily right-wing, closer to the BNP than Ukip.
The British, on the whole, are not Islamaphobes. Only last week, Fraser Nelson wrote for the Daily Telegraph: "The integration of Muslims can now be seen as one of the great success stories of modern Britain."
Yet the FN appears intent on stoking anti-Islamic sentiment. Marine Le Pen's latest edict is that schools in FN-controlled towns will no longer be allowed to keep pork off the canteen menu for the sake of Muslim and Jewish children: they can bring their own packed lunch if they don't like it.
Le Pen was in Perpignan for a rally to support Aliot's mayoral bid. The New York Times reporter watched a crowd chant "Marine! Marine! Marine!" and break into a spirited rendition of La Marseillaise.
For the FN, the municipal polls were just a warm-up for the European Parliament elections on 25 May (three days after Britain). Like Ukip, the FN wants to destroy the EU from within and is hoping to profit from the growing frustration in France at the policies handed down by Brussels, especially those that bring more immigrants.
But here's the thing – Louis Aliot did not win in Perpignan. The candidate for the UMP – the centre-right party of Nicolas Sarkozy – beat him in the second round by 55 to 48 points.
And indeed, while the FN certainly performed strongly in the municipal elections, they did not do as well as some had predicted.
Perhaps, as the New York Times reporter suggested, this is just a "particular moment" in French politics when President Hollande's Socialists and the UMP are "especially weak".
Perhaps the FN won't prove such a hit on 25 May. Perhaps they won't take charge of still more town halls.
Perhaps it will be all right in the end. Open another bottle of rose would you, darling? ·