The National Front lies in wait to take French town

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The Independent Online

in Dreux

You can tell at once that all is not well with Dreux. Although this city of 35,000 people is an hour away from Paris by train to the east, the timetable makes travel from one to the other a test of endeavour. The trains are crowded; the rolling-stock old. The station is daubed with graffiti; the track has litter all over it, and the first newspapers you see displayed at the station kiosk are in Turkish and Arabic.

The agricultural co-operative by the railway line closed down long ago; its windows are smashed and dirty. The Welcome cafe opposite the station has half the letters of its name missing, and appears shut. The small town centre has a piecemeal quaintness about it born of neglect; half- timbered houses abut concrete monstrosities and architectural ensembles have crucial pieces missing.

Having been seemingly left to itself for decades, Dreux put itself on the national map 12 days ago when 35 per cent of its voters gave the extreme- right National Front (NF) candidate, Marie-France Stirbois, victory in the first round of the local elections. It is one of two French cities most likely to elect a NF council in the second round of voting tomorrow (The other is Vitrolles, a town almost the same size, north of Marseilles).

They are thus competing for the dubious honour of being the first city of more than 30,000 people to elect an NF mayor. Paris intellectuals pronounce the names with a shudder. The opposition in Dreux is doing its utmost to prevent a Front victory. The candidate of the mainstream right RPR party, Gerard Hamel, is campaigning frantically. He has reissued his first-round campaign literature with a new pitch: seven reasons for voting RPR - and seven reasons for voting against the National Front.

Mr Hamel's cause has been greatly assisted by the decision of the Socialist Party to withdraw its candidate in Dreux, on grounds that he could not win (he came a poor third in the first round) and that his votes would be better used in trying to keep out the NF out. Mr Hamel, who came second to Mrs Stirbois, therefore finds himself in the unaccustomed position of having the tacit support of the Socialists against the National Front.

The arithmetic is still tight, however. The head of the local newspaper's Dreux office, Jean Bartier, has done the sums over and over, and still finds it hard to believe the Front will not win. There's maybe 5 per cent in it, he says, but politics isn't a purely arithmetical thing; you can't predict what people will do on the day, and the Socialist voters may prefer to abstain than vote for an RPR candidate.

Mr Bartier voices a common fear when he says it would be a tragedy for the NF to win. "Who in their right mind would come to live in Dreux if it is controlled by the National Front? Industry won't set up here; what there is could shut down.''

The reasons Dreux voters might have voted for the Front, however, are evident. Their city, whose outgoing RPR mayor is not standing for office again, has not been well looked after. Mrs Stirbois, a well-groomed blonde of about 50, has strong local roots; while her many critics condemn her ideas as simplistic and unrealisable, they boil down to showing preference for the French over foreign newcomers in jobs and housing. She and her team are working almost round the clock in makeshift headquarters. They say Dreux voters have two preoccupations: crime and immigration. There were police patrolling the town centre in pairs yesterday at lunchtime but much of the crime happens on the estates that ring the centre, and the big problem with Dreux seems to be that it has grown beyond the capacity of the centre to service it.

The estates are a political issue in their own right, one to which the NF owes some of its popularity. At one end of Dreux is Prod'homme, a fusion of two prematurely ageing developments; one of single-storey terraced cottages, with gardens, adjoining a high-rise Sixties development, where all the ground-floor windows are shuttered. At the other end of Dreux is the new estate of les Chamards. The construction appears of good quality but these new flats have been allocated - so the locals say - to recent immigrants, Turks and North Africans. When people are asked why they voted for the Front, a common reason given is their view that in housing and welfare immigrants get favoured treatment. If the National Front wins Dreux tomorrow, it will be partly because les Chamards gave them a symbol for their campaign.