Her far-right boss, Marine Le Pen, met an angry crowd during her visit six years earlier. But something has changed in this corner of France, maybe in the whole country.
“The bogeyman threat is no longer working,” Mariani said in an interview. Instead of screaming and brawling, he posed for selfies with fans and chatted with shoppers as he browsed the cheeses, flowers and vegetables.
As France prepares to hold regional elections from Sunday, Mariani is leading the race to take control of the region of Marseille, the second most populous city in France, and the French Riviera. If he wins, in the last national vote before next April’s presidential election, it would be the first time that Le Pen’s movement has taken control of a region and shows that its new, more moderate message resonates well beyond the party’s traditional areas of support.
It could help Le Pen gain “the credibility her movement lacks” as she prepares to fight President Emmanuel Macron for his job, says Gilles Ivaldi, political scientist who studies radical right-wing movements. It could serve as a “springboard” for the Elysee, he adds.
Mariani, 62, was transport minister under right-wing President Nicolas Sarkozy and mayor of Valreas, a town in the region. He is actually a member of the European Parliament.
Ten years ago, Mariani ran against Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie in the same election as a candidate for the Republicans, France’s traditional conservative party. He jokes that he has since been linked to Marine because of their shared passion for breeding cats. He informally joined her movement after she took charge and is now one of her most popular lieutenants.
Read more: Marine Le Pen’s transformation worries Macron’s allies
Mariani’s good performance is in part due to the disarray of the traditional parties, which have struggled to find their feet since Macron blew up the old French two-party system with his centrist victory in 2017.
The Greens of Provence-Alpe-Côte-d’Azur tried in vain to forge an alliance with the left-wing populist party France Unbowed led by Jean-Luc Melenchon.
The incumbent, Renaud Muselier of the Republicans, has meanwhile tried to increase his chances by partnering with Macron’s party. But let angry voters as well as Republican officials who fear such a pact will undermine their credibility as an alternative to Macron – they are also terrified that the president will weaken their party by winning over the more liberal members while Le Pen absorbs the most to the right. – wing elements.
This frustration, and how it benefits the National Rally, was apparent in the Antibes market.
While Alexandra Masson, candidate on Mariani’s list, was distributing leaflets, she was approached by a right-wing voter. The man said he felt “betrayed” by Muselier’s alliance with the president’s party, adding: “there’s no way I’m voting for Macron”.
Still, Mariani’s victory is not certain.
Muselier is only 8 points behind, with 36% of the vote in the second round, according to a recent LCI poll.
And even this voter who felt betrayed by Macron was reluctant to support the far right. Masson explained that she and Mariani left the Republicans because they did not keep their promises, especially in matters of security and immigration. The three chatted and laughed, and found they had mutual friends.
As the man walked away to continue shopping, he seemed to have decided, at least on the spot, that voting for Le Pen’s camp wasn’t so bad after all.
The National Rally could also win Burgundy-Franche-Comté and Center-Val de Loire. Provence-Alpe-Côte-d’Azur would be particularly important given its history.
Despite seaside resorts and cities like Cannes and Nice, which have attracted wealthy foreigners and artists like Pablo Picasso, the region of 5 million people ranks third for unemployment and poverty. Marseille, gateway to the Mediterranean, was shaped by generations of migrants and the city experienced riots against the far right in 2010.
However, as elsewhere in France, citizens of North African origin who sympathize with the left rarely vote.
Meanwhile, a spate of attacks from Islamist extremists, along with headlines focusing on homicides and drug trafficking, have fueled a sense of fear that is increasingly pushing voters to the right – and so on. This is what causes concern in this election even if the regional chiefs do not Security. Some cities are even run by far-right mayors.
Read more: French security laws are multiplying as Emmanuel Macron turns right
Mariani himself has a knack for communicating with people, but his opinions are hard to pin down.He once said he adored television scholar Eric Zemmour, who was convicted of hate speech and incitement to racial violence. Yet he has been criticized by a far-right rival for helping to build a mosque during his tenure as mayor.
He praised Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad for the cleanliness of Damascus, supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea and dismissed concerns about Moscow’s treatment of opponent Alexei Navalny, with which he narrow links.
On subjects such as the place of Muslims in French society, Mariani can appear conciliatory, even if her remarks sometimes deal a hard blow.
“Anyone who wants to integrate is welcome,” said Mariani in Old Nice. “But not everyone can fit in. “
Just then, a woman wearing a niqab walked by.
“Not this one, for example,” he added with a wave of his hand.