JOHN YANG: But first: France’s center-right party has chosen social conservative Francois Fillon as its presidential candidate in next spring’s elections.
Then, he could face Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front. The deeply unpopular current president, Francois Hollande of the Socialist Party, has not yet said whether he’ll seek reelection.
Le Pen’s National Front hopes to benefit from the so-called Trump effect, as special correspondent Malcolm Brabant discovered when he discovered one of its strongholds in northern France.
MALCOLM BRABANT: Despite being labeled a medieval conservative, Francois Fillon won the Republican nomination in France’s first ever U.S.-style primary by more than 2-1.
FRANCOIS FILLON, Republican Presidential Candidate (through translator): Victory is mine. It’s a substantial victory built on convictions. France wants the truth, and it wants action.
MALCOLM BRABANT: According to analyst Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer, Fillon is a fiscal conservative with a record of consistency.
ALEXANDRA DE HOOP SCHEFFER, German Marshall Fund of the United States: He has strong positions in terms of reducing French public spending. He wants to suppress around 500,000 public sector jobs. He has always stuck to the same positions on many issues. He’s pro-Russian. He says it very clearly.
MALCOLM BRABANT: Most French commentators expect the Socialist presidential candidate to be eliminated early in next year’s election.
At this bastion of the National Front, Henin-Beaumont, they now know who their main opponent is. Steeve Briois is the town’s mayor and the second most important person in the party.
MAYOR STEEVE BRIOIS, Henin-Beaumont (through translator): There’s a global phenomenon today, an awakening. The people are rebelling against the elite. So it’s a good thing that Mr. Trump was elected. It’s a good thing that Brexit happened in Britain. It bodes well for us for France.
MALCOLM BRABANT: This is France’s Rust Belt, northeast of Paris. Slag heaps and heavy machinery preserved in industrial museums are all that remain of coal mines shut down two decades ago. There’s high unemployment. The working class here have followed a familiar political route of abandoning socialists like President Francois Hollande for right-wing populists.
MARINE TONDELIER, Green Party: The Front National is like a vulture party. That’s to say that it shows something that is decreasing, poor, complicated, and it tries to seize it, and it’s exactly what they did here.
EUGENE BINAISSE, Former Mayor, Henin-Beaumont (through translator): A wall of silence has descended on the town. We think we’re being observed by the National Front, and anything you say can come back and bite you.
MALCOLM BRABANT: The National Front was founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen, who famously described the Holocaust as a detail of history. He was expelled from the party last year by his daughter Marine, as she sought to soften its image as one of the most extreme right-wing groups in Europe.
France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe, estimated at between 5 to 10 percent of the population. In Beziers, a National Front stronghold in the south, the administration counted Muslim children, contrary to strict secularist laws.
But according to Marine Tondelier, a councilor in Henin-Beaumont, the mayor here has not conformed to expectations.
MARINE TONDELIER: Here, you don’t have the immigration question so much. Even the Front National mayor is helping the mosque.
When we have got the terrorist attacks in Charlie Hebdo, they do a demonstration with the Muslim people to show that they were united. So it’s not so much a problem. It’s a problem with the Front National in the South of France. But the Front National, you know, it’s like a chameleon party, so they adapt to the city in which they are.
MALCOLM BRABANT: At the moment, your critics say that you’re actually being very nice to immigrants here, but is this because you’re trying to show a nice face now? And will things change if you get into power nationally?
STEEVE BRIOIS (through translator): Because the state has capitulated, foreigners who come to France do whatever they want today. We’re now seeing them retreat into their own communities, and that’s not good for France. It’s not good for the republic. That creates disorder. That’s why one must have the courage to limit immigration to the absolute minimum. We can’t welcome anymore.
MALCOLM BRABANT: But while some may find this rhetoric disconcerting, it doesn’t trouble Abdelatif Kouba, a French national of Algerian origin who runs a halal butcher’s in the main square.
ABDELATIF KOUBA, Halal Butcher (through translator): Why be afraid? I don’t understand. I think the National Front is like any other party. The media exaggerate everything.
MALCOLM BRABANT: But Pascal Wallart does have a problem. He runs the district office of “La Voix du Nord,” a newspaper that supported the resistance during the Second World War. Last year, the paper published an editorial saying that Marine Le Pen would be dangerous for France. The National Front administration in the town hall cut off relations immediately.
PASCAL WALLART, Voix du Nord Newspaper (through translator): They want to control the entire communication process. I will not use the word fascist, but we’re not far from it. But there’s a totalitarian attitude to muzzling communication. Here, evil has been done, and it will remain for a long time.
MALCOLM BRABANT: Although Henin-Beaumont is National Front territory, it was hard to find people at the market who were willing to support them on camera.
MAN (through translator): I don’t think we should be more afraid of the National Front than any other party. No one’s worse or better.
MALCOLM BRABANT: France’s Socialist prime minister, Manuel Valls, believes the world has changed since Donald Trump’s victory. He believes it boosts the chances of Marine Le Pen, the National Front leader, of winning the presidential election in France next May.
Now, Valls believes that Trump’s success and the Brexit vote demonstrate the need of politicians to listen to angry citizens, especially when it comes to issues like immigration. And he believes that the rise of populists and the far-right has been made possible by politicians who are too scared to take tough decisions.
But Francois Fillon has convinced voters in the primaries that, as president, he will back up his tough talk with action by disbanding extreme Islamic groups.
FRANCOIS FILLON (through translator): My friends, radical Islam is undermining our fellow Muslim citizens. It infiltrates them, takes them hostage. They hate what we are. So, I tell you, I will fight them without respite and without mercy.
MALCOLM BRABANT: Analyst de Hoop Scheffer believes the National Front’s Marine Le Pen may suffer because of a French backlash against Donald Trump.
ALEXANDRA DE HOOP SCHEFFER: I don’t think that Donald Trump’s election in the U.S. will actually help her. I believe that it’s maybe the contrary. It might undermine her. And the fact that a significant part of the French population actually went out and vote in the center-right primary was, to me, a very strong signal in terms of the French not wanting to see Marine Le Pen run France in 2017.
MALCOLM BRABANT: Historically, the far right has been squeezed out by the center-right and left combining and voting tactically. Some analysts believe Francois Fillon’s brand of conservatism may repel Socialists.
At the town hall in Henin-Beaumont, they hope this will create an opening for the National Front.
For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Malcolm Brabant in France.
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