France: Will xenophobia go mainstream?

In the beautiful Rhone delta, John Lichfield visits a village where a dangerous new political landscape is taking shape

The Rhône delta is a country of big skies, white horses, black bulls, pink flamingos, high unemployment and confrontational politics. It is also a man-made landscape of ancient embankments or digues (dikes) which tame the river Rhone and prevent it from inundating the beautiful flatlands of the greater Camargue.

This weekend the dikes of the Camargue and adjoining areas are threatened with collapse: not the dikes enclosing the many channels of the Rhone but the political, and moral, barriers that have traditionally separated the xenophobic far right from mainstream French politics and especially the centre right.

"The system is cracking. You can feel it is cracking up wherever you go. Nothing will be the same again after this weekend," Gilbert Collard told The Independent, his shirt soaked with sweat after a histrionic – and at times hysterical – speech to a National Front (NF) village meeting in Beauvoisin in the Petite Camargue.

Mr Collard is a 64-year-old celebrity lawyer. He has a mane of grey-brown hair, a rumpled blue jacket and an open shirt. He looks like a "bourgeois-bohemian intellectual terrorist of the left" (his phrase). He is, in fact, the National Front candidate in this part of the Gard département – and one of four or five far-right candidates who have a chance of winning a seat in the second round of parliamentary elections this Sunday. Mr Collard may be right. The landscape of French politics could be transformed this weekend.

President François Hollande's moderate left will win a parliamentary majority but there is nothing especially surprising about that. The sub-plot of the elections is more gripping, and scarier, than the main-plot.

Will the far right manage to win any seats? Will centre-right voters and even centre-right politicians break ranks with their national leadership and support a party that has for years been decried as beyond the pale of France's "Republican values" of liberty, equality and fraternity?

On Sunday, there will be 29 "triangular" contests (out of 577) because NF candidates qualified in the first round to compete with candidates of both the centre left and centre right. There will be a handful of contests in which far-right candidates will face a single opponent of the left (including the NF leader Marine Le Pen, who has a good chance of winning in the Pas de Calais).

The biggest concentration of the surviving NF candidates is here in the south and especially in an arc along the Languedoc coast, through the Rhône delta and into the Alpine foothills. Why here? Mr Collard, part chat-show host, part Rumpole of the Bailey, harangued a pliable jury of NF voters in the Beauvoisin village hall. On the balcony of the house opposite, a woman of Arab origin in an orange dress quietly smoked a cigarette in the evening sunshine.

In the south, immigrants and people of immigrant origin do not live just in urban areas. In Beauvoisin (translation "beautiful neighbour") one in every three people is of foreign origin.

Katy Guyot, the Socialist candidate in this constituency, says there has been a drum-beat from local far-right politicians for years identifying ethnic minorities with crime, unemployment, "incivility", welfare dependency and a decline of patriotic values. Many centre-right politicians now campaign on almost exactly the same themes.

"The dike between the far right and the traditional right is crumbling," she said. "And who can be surprised at that? During the (Nicolas) Sarkozy presidency, and especially during the presidential campaign this year, the policies and the words were almost the same."

The main centre-right party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) has moved towards the NF. Marine Le Pen has moved, at least cosmetically, towards the UMP. The core NF appeal remains a kind of white tribalism and fear of Arabs and Islam. All the same, since she replaced her father as NF president in January, Ms Le Pen has pushed openly racist, anti-Semitic and thuggish elements out of the party. It is Ms Le Pen's ambition to broaden her movement.

She has even talked of renaming the party – something that infuriates her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and other NF diehards. She says she wants to colonise the right of the centre right, breaking the mould of post-war French politics. The complex rules of the two-round parliamentary elections have created this week a series of live experiments in Ms Le Pen's ambitions.

The Socialists, Greens and harder left have long made deals to maximise parliamentary seats by standing down for one another in the second round of parliamentary elections. The UMP and its predecessors have always refused to make such deals with the NF, on the grounds that its racist appeals place it outside the moral consensus of the French Republic. Officially, the UMP has held to that position this week. In practise, the Maginot line between right and far right has been widely breached.

The former defence minister, Gérard Longuet, has spoken of the NF "no longer carrying a mark of Cain". Another former Sarkozy minister, Nadine Morano, has said she shares many "values" with NF voters. In a series of second round races – especially here in the south – there has been a bizarre, hesitation waltz between UMP and NF candidates. In the Petite Camargue constituency, just south of Nîmes, Gilbert Collard topped the poll last Sunday with 34 per cent. The sitting UMP deputy, Étienne Mourrut, indicated he would withdraw to allow Mr Collard to defeat the Socialist, Ms Guyot. Under pressure from the UMP leadership, Mr Mourrut changed his mind. His running-mate, Eline Enriquez-Bouzanquet, was beaten up outside her home the next day by a man who made racist remarks. Not all the thugs have been pushed out of the NF.

In the Camargue proper, just to the east, a hard right UMP candidate has broken party orders and stood aside to try to get an NF candidate elected. A little to the north, in Carpentras, it is a Socialist candidate, Catherine Arkilovitch, who is ignoring national party instructions. She has insisted on running in the second round, creating a triangular NF-UMP-Socialist race which could hand a seat to Ms Le Pen's 22-year-old niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen. No matter, said Ms Arkilovitch. The sitting UMP member was just as far to the right as the NF.

Manoeuvres and local jealousies apart, it will be centre-right voters who decide whether the dike between "traditional" and "far" right will crack this weekend. "Even with the UMP candidate running, I will win," Mr Collard said. "Half of the UMP voters feel closer to me than to the left. It will be close. But I will win."

Arts & Entertainment
Shaun Evans as Endeavour interviews a prisoner as he tries to get to the bottom of a police cover up
tvReview: Second series comes to close with startling tale of police corruption and child abuse
Arts & Entertainment
A stranger calls: Martin Freeman in ‘Fargo’
Review: New 10-part series brims with characters and stories

Arts & Entertainment
Schwarzenegger winning Mr. Universe 1969
arts + entsCan you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
Sport
Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez celebrate during Liverpool's game with Norwich
football Another hurdle is out of the way for Brendan Rodgers' side
VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
The star of the sitcom ‘Miranda’ is hugely popular with mainstream audiences
TVMiranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
News
Portrait of Queen Elizabeth-II by David Bailey which has been released to mark her 88th birthday
peoplePortrait released to mark monarch's 88th birthday
Life & Style
The writer, Gerda Saunders, with her mother, who also suffered with dementia before her death
healthGerda Saunders on the most formidable effect of her dementia
Sport
Manchester United manager David Moyes looks on during his side's defeat to Everton
footballBaines and Mirallas score against United as Everton keep alive hopes of a top-four finish
Sport
Tour de France 2014Sir Rodney Walker on organising the UK stages of this year’s race
Arts & Entertainment
Jessica Brown Findlay as Mary Yellan in ‘Jamaica Inn’
TVJessica Brown Findlay on playing the spirited heroine of Jamaica Inn
News
YouTube clocks up more than a billion users a month
mediaEuropean rival Dailymotion certainly thinks so
Arts & Entertainment
The original design with Charles' face clearly visible, which is on display around the capital
arts + ents The ad shows Prince Charles attired for his coronation in a crown and fur mantle with his mouth covered by a criss-cross of white duct tape
Arts & Entertainment
‘Self-Portrait Worshipping Christ’ (c943-57) by St Dunstan
books How British artists perfected the art of the self-portrait
Sport
Luis Suarez celebrates after scoring in Liverpool's 3-2 win over Norwich
Football Vine shows Suarez writhing in pain before launching counter attack
News
People White House officials refuse to make comment on 275,000 signatures that want Justin Bieber's US visa revoked
News
Sir Cliff Richard is to release his hundredth album at age 72
PEOPLE
Sport
Lukas Podolski celebrates one of his two goals in Arsenal's win over Hull
football
Arts & Entertainment
Quentin Tarantino, director
film
News
The speeding train nearly hit this US politican during a lecture on rail safety
news As the saying goes, you have to practice what you preach
Sport
Mercedes Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain (front) drives ahead of Red Bull Formula One driver Daniel Ricciardo of Australia during the Chinese F1 Grand Prix at the Shanghai International circuit
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Billie Jean King, who won the women’s Wimbledon title in 1967, when the first colour pictures were broadcast
tv
News
Snow has no plans to step back or reduce his workload
mediaIt's 25 years since Jon Snow first presented Channel 4 News, and his drive shows no sign of diminishing
Life & Style
food + drinkWhat’s not to like?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Geography Teacher

£130 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Ilford: Secondary Geography Teacher Lo...

Do you want to work in Education?

£55 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Are you a dynamic and energeti...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: SEN TAs, LSAs and Support Workers needed...

Private Client Senior Manager - Sheffield

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Pro-Recruitment Group: The Sheffield office of this...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit