NICE, France — "Long live Nice, city of victory!"
With these words and the soaring strains of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," France's right-wing political leader Jean-Marie Le Pen ended an emotional three-hour election rally recently in this major resort and retirement city on the French Riviera.
Polls show Le Pen's National Front party, Europe's most powerful extreme right-wing movement since World War II, poised for its best showing ever in Sunday's regional elections across France. With the Socialist Party of President Francois Mitterrand and other mainstream parties in decline, the main beneficiaries are anti-Establishment movements such as the virulently anti-immigrant National Front and two rival environmental parties.
Nice and the surrounding region of France--port of entry for North African immigrants and home of the ultraconservative former Algerian colonialists, the \o7 pieds noirs\f7 --is a particular stronghold for the National Front. A nationalistic political movement with a long record of racism and anti-Semitism, the National Front in the last 10 years has emerged from the shadows to become an important force in French politics, with national support estimated at about 15% of the population.
By exploiting tensions between Arab immigrants and local populations, moribund local economies and public fears of crime, the National Front has fared especially well here in Nice and the Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur region that stretches along the Mediterranean coast between the Italian border and the Rhone River delta. The extremist party leads polls in both Nice and Marseilles, the two main cities in the region.
Everything about the National Front stresses urgency, impatience with the established political order. The party slogan is "Le Pen, Fast!"
"The destiny of our country needs to be decided before the end of the century," Le Pen asserted in his stirring, apocalyptic speech before a hushed, overflow crowd in Nice. The meeting site in a large tent at the edge of the sea gave it the air of an American-style revival. Like the American evangelists he imitates, Le Pen roamed the stage with a remote microphone clipped to his lapel, gesturing dramatically to make his points about "floods" of unwanted immigrants, AIDS carriers and drug addicts invading France.
He called on his followers, most numerous among the young and the elderly, to go out into the streets as "missionaries of the truth" to organize for Sunday's elections.
"What we are fighting for," he said, pausing gravely, "is the very survival of France."
Violent demonstrations have erupted during the Front's campaign in some regions of France, the latest major one occurring at midweek in Paris where police clashed with youths who went on a rampage during a march by 2,000 to 3,000 protesters strongly opposed to Le Pen. Nine people were injured and eight were arrested, authorities said.
In Marseilles on Friday, an anti-Le Pen protester was shot and wounded by an unidentified gunman.
The National Front, sensing its best chance ever to gain a geographical toehold in France, has concentrated its campaign efforts in wooing the Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur region's 4.2 million inhabitants.
Unlike the carefree, bucolic image of the region presented in the best-selling books by British author Peter Mayle, "A Year in Provence" and "Toujours Provence," the Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur is a troubled place, torn by racial divisions, crime and high unemployment. It is France's second-most-urbanized region, surpassed only by the Ile de France region that includes Paris.
Since 1946, the region has absorbed 2 million new residents, including 1 million from overseas, mainly from North Africa. The region's 300,000 \o7 pieds noirs\f7 , still unable to accept France's loss of its Algerian colony, along with 210,000 immigrants from North Africa and a huge, conservative retired community, create a volatile mix. The new populations have created an urban sprawl that climbs up the barren, chalky hills pressing against the coast, creating pollution and snarled traffic.
High unemployment in the main cities, including 19% in Marseilles, has caused petty crime to escalate, spreading fear in the retirement community.
In retiree-dominated Nice, crime has become the No. 1 issue and helps fire the National Front's anti-immigrant stand, according to Pierre Dany, editor of Nice-Matin, the local newspaper.
"All you have to do is look at what happens day to day in the newspaper," said Dany, referring to the paper's daily crime blotter listing the names of people arrested. "Most . . . are North African, so it is easy to use them to smear the Arab populations. Little by little, people get the impression that the Maghrebians (natives of Arab North Africa) are given to petty crime."
The combination of racial tensions, crime and economic disparities has created an ideal atmosphere for spreading the hatred preached by Le Pen and the National Front.