Next-door folk who man the Front line

We are in Les Pavillons-sous-Bois, a leafy fragment in the tangle of motorways, tower-blocks, shopping-malls and factories in the north- eastern suburbs of Paris. The headquarters of Front National Departement 93 - Seine St Denis - branch is a suburban house which has been allowed to fall into disrepair.

Inside, the walls are plastered with posters, including several examples of the FN popular classic "immigration equals unemployment". But the first poster one sees sums up the revised, fin-de-siecle dogma of the FN. It shows a large, crude dinosaur, a savage version of Barney in US colours, gobbling up French working people. The slogan is: "Globalisation - eater of work."

Michel Paulin, deputy head of the local party, is a retired chief salesman, aged 58. "We have nothing to hide," he says. "You see - no swastikas. No guns." He has just taken delivery of a new series of posters, which say: "Death penalty for child-killers". At my request, Mr Paulin has assembled a cross-section of his "militants" to discuss why they belong to the FN. One does not necessarily expect a true cross-section. No doubt these men - they are all men - have been chosen to give a foreign visitor the "right" idea. But that is what I wanted: to meet a cross-section of respectable members of the Front in one of its most successful breeding- grounds before the party's annual conference in Strasbourg next weekend.

The "militants" range in age from 26 to 58, in occupation from municipal workers to an engineer and a self-employed accountant. They are all white - save one. The FN likes to parade its tiny minority of brown and black members. Jean-Marc Edrom, 33, is an engineer. His father was from Guadeloupe, in the West Indies. He is not an immigrant, nor the son of an immigrant, because Guadeloupe is part of France. He says his presence proves the FN is not racist: he belongs to it because he has "a high idea of my country, as one of the major contributors to advanced civilisation in the world".

Mr Edrom apart, it would be easy to caricature these men. Unhandsome; badly dressed; an atmosphere of personal depression. I have met them before: supporters of the Ku Klux Klan leader turned politician Alan Duke, in Louisiana; supporters of Ross Perot. They, of course, were convinced the world was a conspiracy against the US; not that the US was a conspiracy against the world.

But the Frontistes are open and friendly enough; they are not overtly racist; a man's skin does not matter, they say, his culture and behaviour do. To understand the success of the Front, and its dangers, it is important to bear this in mind: its leaders may be cynical and ill-intentioned but, at local level, the Front's supporters look like - are - the people next door.

Michel Sellier, 56, a shabby, self-employed accountant, says he is typical of the kind of people coming to the FN. He joined four years ago after having voted for every other party except the Communists. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he saw there was a new threat to French identity in the world. "I saw the new world order being erected by the US, which was intolerant of other cultures. I looked around and saw nothing but American films on television; McDonald's; young people wearing jeans, baseball hats, playing rap music. I saw our jobs going abroad. I saw immigrants who had no respect for our culture. I looked for a party which could express and defend these ideas and saw only the Front National."

I tease them about an FN publication on the origins of the French nation which has a drawing of Clovis (the Frankish king who reigned 481-511 and who founded the Merovingian monarchy) on the front resembling Bjorn Borg at his most hirsute. How many people in this room, how many people in France, look like that? "No, you misunderstand. Clovis was the origin of the French nation but he was a German: that was what he looked like". Yes, but this resembles the worst kind of Aryan-nation propaganda by neo- Nazi parties in Britain, Germany or the US.

Mr Paulin brings me a picture of his daughter when she was about seven. She is blonde; but he is not. "That caused me a lot of problems ..." he said, guffawing. "People jumped to the wrong conclusions." I try another tack. The job-eating US dinosaur poster. Is that not exaggerated? Globalism is a leap into the unknown for all countries, including the US. And if the might of the dollar is such a threat, what do they have against the European Union, a European single currency?

Francois Bellaton, 58, an engineer, says: "The Americans will never let the euro happen." Why not? "They will manipulate the markets to prevent it, because they will not tolerate anything which challenges the domination of the dollar." So he is in favour of the euro? (The FN officially is certainly not). "Non," he is "tout a fait contre," because he is against the European government of bureaucrats being plotted in Brussels.

But how would he defend France against the dollar? Can the franc stand alone against US-manipulated markets? No, they agree, probably not. There should be an arrangement to fix all European exchange rates permanently against one another. Yes, I said, it will be called the euro. No, they are against that because France must preserve its monetary independence and the franc must survive as a national symbol ...

It was like arguing with a friend who has had a nervous breakdown. The anxieties are rooted in reality but magnified and distorted by some psychological cause you cannot quite touch. I left the meeting confused, defeated, depressed.