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National Front tests out power in Frejus

The EU flag has not flown alongside the French tricolor since a National Front mayor took office in the Mediterranean town. There, Le Pen's enthusiastic supporters clash with those who oppose the FN, Barbara Wesel found.

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Campaigning for Macron

Like all town halls in France, the words on the facade of the Mairie of Frejus also promise "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity." Below this is the French flag, and nothing else - no European Union (EU) flag. Mayor David Rachline took down the EU flag the morning after his election in April 2014, local residents explained.

This was the mayor's small provocative act: where the National Front (FN) holds power, there is no Europe. Rachline, who recently turned 30, belongs to the bedrock of FN support. He joined the party when he was 15, coming from its "national-revolutionary" right-wing extremist fringe. Since becoming Marine Le Pen's campaign manager, he has no more time for Frejus. Back home, things have to carry on without him.

Marine Le Pen (Picture-Alliance/AP Photo/C. Paris)

Marine Le Pen waves to supporters during a 2016 summer meeting in Frejus

FN Patriots: freezing for the homeland

Rachline is a great inspiration for 19-year-old Clothilde Loidreau. As a small child, she already wanted to join the FN's youth association. She is an ardent supporter of Marine Le Pen. Why? Clothilde believes that the FN's "patriotic values" should be brought back. For this reason, she thinks this election will decide France's fate.

Read more: After tense debate, France finds Macron more convincing

On this cold morning, Clothilde is standing outside the NF's party offices wearing only a T-shirt. "Aren't you cold? Put a sweater on," says her aunt Jaqueline. "Patriots are tough," replies Clothilde and continues to freeze for the homeland.

According to Jaqueline Loidreau's view on Sunday's upcoming election, "It is good that Marine has formed an alliance with the independent Dupont-Aignan because this will increase her chances with The Republicans' voters," she said, referring to the party of first-round conservative candidate Francois Fillon.

Frankreich Präsidentschaftswahl - Wahlkampf Fréjus, Büro Front National (DW/B. Wesel)

The National Front party headquarters in Frejus

Jaqueline hopes to somewhat tone down her niece's fanaticism - she believes that France simply needs a change. "It was a catastrophe with Sarkozy, and then we had the disaster that was Hollande, so we should give Marine's program a chance," says the activist. Like everyone, she calls the party leader simply "Marine," which comes across as a mixture between familiarity and reverence.

But Jaqueline thinks that the accusations of racism against the FN are unfair: "The Arabs who work here, they can stay. But we have to close our borders to migrants. They get all the public housing and too much money from the government." This is an argument one hears repeatedly, regardless of with whom one speaks. But no one mentions actual facts or figures.

Frankreich Präsidentschaftswahl - Wahlkampf Fréjus, Front National (DW/B. Wesel)

Patrick and Clothilde Loidreau support Marine Le Pen and the National Front

The loneliness of the voting booth

The entire Loidreau family is involved with the National Front. The father, Patrick, runs a restaurant across from the town square, called "Les Micocouliers," and both sons are party members. Patrick looks like a stereotypical southern French patron: gold chains around his neck, smiling, attentive to his customers.

Doesn't he have concerns that tourists could stay away if the National Front Party comes to power? "Oh no," he waves the suggestion away, and says that tourists could still come in under the new border controls, and the country would really be safe, without terrorism.

Patrick has followed the many twists and turns in Marine Le Pen's election campaign without a problem: "We are going to keep the euro for the big international companies, but within the country we are going to return to the franc. You will be buying your baguette with francs again." He also sees no problem with leaving the EU. Somehow he believes that life will continue on as before - except better.

Karte Frankreich Frejus Marseille Nice ENG

Frejus is nestled on the Mediterranean coast of France

Funding cuts to civic associations

Local teacher Marie-Jo Azevedo and her husband Gerard are the spearheads of civil resistance in Frejus. We met them outside the former clubhouse in the suburb of Villeneuve. "They have expelled all the associations one by one, withdrawn their subsidies and driven them away," says Marie-Jo. Youth services, a sports club, a cultural society - they all had to move out. Now the former clubhouse is home to a police station and an office for elderly care.

Two policemen appeared while we were talking and interrogated us about what we were doing and who this report was arranged with. But they quickly gave up their half-hearted attempt at intimidation.

"Ever since the new mayor took office there are police officers everywhere," says Marie-Jo with indignation. "This is typical of right-wing extremists," adds her husband Gerard. He not only means the constant police presence, but also the systematic repression of civil society.

Read more: Populist danger in Europe is very real

Frankreich Präsidentschaftswahl - Wahlkampf, Bürgerverein (DW/B. Wesel)

National Front opponents Gerard and Marie-Jo Azevedo

The pair runs their "Republican Forum" as a meeting place for FN opponents. "We arrange events with the NGO SOS Racism and we are active on Facebook," says Marie-Jo. They want to arrange a celebration of Europe party on May 20 - now more than ever.

How come the FN is so strong along the sunny shores of the relatively affluent Mediterranean coast? "The south has always been very right-wing," explains Gerard. Additionally, a lot of "pieds-noirs," former French residents of Algeria, who are apparently especially Islamophobic, live here. There are also many old people with a high need for security and many retired military. The population mix seems custom-made for the FN.

A test of courage for Macron supporters

Meanwhile, Jacques Lajous and his friends are distributing flyers for Emmanuel Macron on Frejus' market square, which is not such an easy task. Some passersby just rudely turn away; others hurl abuse at the campaigners.

Frankreich präsidentschaftswahl Plakte Macron Le Pen (Reuters/R. Pratta)

Macron and Le Pen will face off in the final election round on Sunday

"The FN is putting a lot of pressure on people: They threaten restaurant owners with the removal of part of their street patios. People applying for social housing have to tell the FN what it wants to hear. And Frejus' so-called debt reduction is also just a facade: The mayor has simply sold all public land,” say the activists.

They reject the style and content of the FN policies: "Marine Le Pen's personality cult is horrible. It is more of a religious sect than a political party," says Jacques. He and his fellow campaigners are counting heavily on a victory for Emmanuel Macron: "He is the only one who can unite France now. However, should Marine Le Pen come to power, "then we will soon be unable to recognize France anymore."  And political opponents like them could find themselves with little room to breathe.

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