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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 March, 2004, 21:08 GMT 22:08 UK
France's Eurorebel 'with a cause'

By William Horsley
BBC News

Philippe de Villiers is a French rebel with a cause. He breaks a general taboo among respectable politicians in France. He says boldly that "the Europe of Brussels is an anti-democratic dictatorship".

Philippe de Villiers in his replica Gallo-Roman Stadium gives the
De Villiers: Thumbs-down to Brussels!
From his power base in the Vendee region on France's Atlantic coast, he plans to fight back against a European "superstate".

He claims that French people have realised that the European Union is "destroying their jobs, their security and their identity".

Mr de Villiers says he believes in a Europe of Nations. His goal is to restore full national sovereignty - not just for France, but for all the proud nation-states of Europe.

He wants France to quit the euro currency zone and to reject the planned EU constitution.

'Policy of Brussels'

Until recently, such talk was almost unheard of, except in the mouths of the far-right National Front.

President Jacques Chirac voting in France's regional elections
President Chirac was humiliated in the regional polls, analysts say

But the crushing defeat of the centre-right French government in the latest regional elections in France may have created a vacuum.

It seems to confirm the mistrust of French voters towards their political masters. Two years ago it was the Socialists' turn to be thrown out of office.

Mr de Villiers says one reason is that the policy of the mainstream parties is "the policy of Brussels".

Another, he says, is the voters' growing suspicion of national politicians resulting from a series of financial scandals surrounding those near the centre of power.

'Champion of fishermen and farmers'

Mr de Villiers is a popular President of the Department of the Vendee.

Philippe de Villiers with an eagle
De Villiers has been a highly successful entrepreneur

And he won his seat in the French National Assembly with 67% of the vote - one of the highest personal votes recorded anywhere.

He is an outspoken champion of the fishermen and farmers of his region against the quotas and directives from the EU institutions in Brussels.

And during his time in office the Vendee has become one of France's most dynamic regions. It even has its own world-class international yacht race - the Vendee Globe Challenge.

'Own Coliseum'

The elections to the European parliament in June will be decisive.

In the last European elections Mr de Villiers' political party, the Movement for France, won more votes than any other centre-right party, including the one led by President Jacques Chirac.

A Roman-style chariot race at the Puy du Fou themepark
De Villiers says chariot races inspire French patriots like him

This time he predicts a surge in support for Eurosceptic parties like his - not only in France but also in Portugal, Poland, the Czech Republic, Britain and elsewhere.

Mr de Villiers is a highly successful entrepreneur. He created the Puy du Fou themepark, one of the most visited in France, as a living showcase for the country's history.

There he has built a replica medieval city, and breeds exotic birds of prey, like eagles and vultures, as well as tigers and lions.

The animals are trained to perform in the grand public spectacles that are staged daily at Puy du Fou during summer.

The highlight is the Gallo-Roman Stadium - his own Coliseum.

There audiences can sit in the open watching Roman-style chariot races. The main event is an inspiration to a patriot like him. It re-enacts a brave rebellion by the ancient Gauls against the might of Imperial Rome.

Standing in his own stadium, de Villiers railed aloud against the "subjugation" of the modern Gauls - the French.

Grinning, he gave the thumbs-down, shouting "Down With The Commissioners of Brussels".

Eurosceptics 'alive and well'

France has long claimed the political leadership of the European Union, and with it the influence to make the EU serve the interests of France. Lately that has begun to change.

EU enlargement has diluted French power in Europe.

And in the recent row with the European Commission over the French government's failure to obey EU limits on excessive budget spending President Chirac and his ministers themselves attacked Brussels' "interference in French sovereignty".

After the regional election debacle, a Chirac loyalist MP, Jacques Myard, sought to blame Brussels for France's ills, and for the government's unpopularity.

French economic policies, Monsieur Myard said, are now "controlled from Brussels".

Mr de Villiers would surely agree. Eurosceptics are alive and well, it seems, among politicians in France - the country which more than any other has made the European Union what it is.

William Horsley is the presenter of Europe Direct on BBC World TV

Transmission times: Wednesday 31 March 2130GMT: Thursday 1 April 0130 & 0930GMT; Saturday 3 April 0530GMT; Sunday 4 April 0130 & 1130GMT.

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