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Last Updated: Monday, 16 April 2007, 10:05 GMT 11:05 UK
Le Pen urges halt to immigration
By Emma Jane Kirby
BBC News, Paris

French National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen at rally in Paris, 15 Apr 07
Mr Le Pen stunned France by reaching the second round in 2002
Jean-Marie Le Pen has been in politics for more than 50 years, but at his rally at Porte de Versailles in Paris the crowd greet him as if he was the hottest new act in politics.

Some 5-6,000 people waving flags crammed into the stadium on Sunday to cheer on the National Front leader. The overspill who could not fit in still screamed their approval through the open doors.

"I'm voting for the first time," 19-year-old Frederic told me. "And I'm voting Le Pen because immigration is a serious problem in France - that's not racist, it's realistic and Le Pen will deal with the problem, while candidates like Sarkozy and Royal just pretend it's not happening."

Thirty-five years after the National Front party was founded, stopping immigration remains its dominant theme. Mr Le Pen warned the crowd that France was in danger from the thousands of immigrants who arrive in the country each year.

"This is just the start of mass immigration," he warned from the podium. "If we do nothing, we will be submerged."

Racism debate

Last year a French court convicted the 78-year-old far-right leader of inciting racial hatred. But when I mention this to his supporters they insist he is not racist, just braver than most politicians in tackling taboo subjects.

French National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen at rally in Paris, 15 Apr 07

Eric now lives in London but has come back to Paris for the day just to hear Mr Le Pen talk. "I don't care about racial issues - that's life and it's not my problem. Le Pen is a great guy because he will take action and France needs someone to take action."

Surprisingly perhaps, a recent survey suggests that up to 8% of French Muslims will vote National Front on 22 April.

Fayid Smahi, a regional councillor and National Front member in Paris, claims Mr Le Pen offers much more wholesome values than mainstream politicians.

"Above everything it's his family values we share. When we're eating our dinner, watching TV at night and we see two homosexual men kissing, it upsets us. As Muslims, and as decent French citizens, it shocks us."

Mr Smahi is convinced that Mr Le Pen also offers more hope to second-generation integrated Muslims who face prejudice because of their colour or race.

"Why is there this fundamental injustice in France? Because we are called Fayid, Zubeida, Monir? We are French citizens, have masters degrees, and yet we only get jobs at fast food restaurants. Well, if Mr Le Pen gets elected we will get proper jobs because he believes in putting French citizens - and that's what we are - first."

Solid support

Browsing in the National Front shop at the rally, among the flashing lapel pins and Le Pen baseball caps, a T-shirt catches my eye. On the breast pocket is a cartoon of an Arab man in Middle Eastern dress, laden with bags and suitcases. It carries the slogan "Bon Voyage Mate!"

France was horrified when Mr Le Pen came second in the 2002 presidential race, but that sense of shock has had no negative effect on his ratings.

The polls currently put him in fourth place and suggest that with between 13 and 16% he could get his highest score yet.

For the thousands of people at the rally who enthusiastically yell their support, it is worth remembering that many more voters will show their approval for the National Front more quietly at the ballot box on 22 April.

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