In France, Fears That the National Front Could Make Gains

Apart from supporters of the Islamic State (ISIS), it is hard to imagine anyone in Paris finding reason to smile after Friday's devastating attacks. At the sites of the shootings and at the Place de la Republique near the Bataclan concert hall, candles, heartfelt cards and bouquets of flowers have been placed by openly weeping visitors. But if any group has cause for optimism it is the country's far-right National Front (FN) party, led by the charismatic Marine Le Pen.

Le Pen has warned countless times about the dangers posed by Islamist extremists and voiced fears that France is not adequately controlling its borders. Friday's attacks—carried out by gunmen affiliated with the Islamic State (ISIS), of whom at least one reportedly arrived in France as a refugee—will only have given weight to her argument. Moderates fear that with France's regional elections due to take place in just three weeks, the FN could make historic gains.

Le Pen has softened her party's image from that projected by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party's first leader. But on Saturday she took a strident tone at a press conference held just hours after the attacks. Calling them "an escalation of Islamist terrorism," Le Pen insisted that her country must take back control of its borders and in doing so crush extremism.

In Paris's Le Marais district, a historically Jewish area, several people expressed concerns that Le Pen's party would gain momentum following Friday's tragedy. Under Le Pen's father, the FN had a reputation for being virulently anti-Semitic. A 51-year-old Jewish shopkeeper who wished to be identified only as Jerome said he had watched a video on YouTube showing a montage of clips of Le Pen rubbing her hands together. The video implied she was doing so with glee over what had transpired on Friday.

Though France's Jewish and ethnic minority communities are worried about a right-wing party gaining traction, its supporters find cause for celebration. Jean-Claude Flajoulot has been a member of the FN since 1974. Now retired, the 65-year-old former naval officer said his party will be the one to save France.

"The attacks were a catastrophe for the country," Flajoulot said. "Our government is a catastrophe, it doesn't control our borders." What attracts him to Le Pen's party, he added, is that it's not like those in power, who "don't have a solution and always stay in the same place."

Flajoulot shook off critics who say the party attracts racists and Islamophobes. "There are many racists across all parties," he said. "I am just a nationalist and I am only bothered about radical Islamists."

But when probed on what needs to happen in France to counter violent extremism, Flajoulot expressed views that may be too strong for some. "We should strip Islamist extremists of their French citizenship and return them to their countries of origin," Flajoulot said. "We also need to re-establish border controls in France."

The strong response demanded by Flajoulot and other FN supporters was somewhat echoed by French President Francois Hollande after the attacks. Describing them on Saturday as "an act of war," Hollande—perhaps anticipating the response from Le Pen and his other rival, France's former centre-right President Nicolas Sarkozy—promised that France "will lead the fight and we will be ruthless." Already, French pilots have begun airstrikes in Raqqa, the de facto capital of the ISIS caliphate.

While Hollande gears up for his battle, the FN is preparing as well. Riding high in the political opinion polls, it looks likely that Le Pen could ultimately end up in the presidential run-off in the 2017 general election. A strong performance in the upcoming regional elections should keep her on course to do just that.

Wallerand de Saint-Just, 60, is hoping to win the Paris seat in the elections. As residents and tourists gathered at Notre Dame cathedral for a memorial service to commemorate the victims, Wallerand, there to observe the ceremony, told Newsweek that he believes his party could win. "I certainly think we will gain more votes," he said. "Our party has the solution to the problem of terrorism."

The solution, the FN believes, is to rigidly control France's borders, work against radicalization and improve security. "We should not let in any more refugees," de Saint-Just said. "Some of them will be terrorists."

Though the FN is already definite in its policies, it is not yet clear how the French government will respond to Friday's attacks. With at least one gunman still at large, those in power have their own domestic problems to deal with before addressing their stance on issues as complex as the refugee crisis. But as the last few days have made clear, France's government will also have to duck and dodge the stream of attacks lobbed against it by the increasingly popular National Front.

More about the Paris attacks