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French far-right group has message in menu

They feasted in the verdant back country of picture-postcard Provence, the delight of tourists and the pride of France.
/ Source: The Associated Press

They feasted in the verdant back country of picture-postcard Provence, the delight of tourists and the pride of France.

But it was no ordinary country idyll. The extreme right Bloc Identitaire, or Identity Bloc, was lashing out at Islam while dining on pork roast and local wine — off limits to practicing Muslims.

The group, an emerging force on France's far-right scene, likens Muslim immigrants to invaders threatening the identity of the French heartland and menacing European civilization. The movement — with a wild pig as its logo — is gaining traction through its blend of Islam-bashing and romanticizing of French rural culture.

Increasingly, it is being used as an "idea box" for the National Front, a well-established far-right party and force in European politics that could play a crucial role in French presidential elections five months away.

The Bloc's campaign against mosque building and its wine-and-pork strategies are also finding a more mainstream audience in the country with western Europe's largest Muslim population, estimated at 5 million, the majority with origins in France's former colonies in North Africa.

A group of lawmakers from President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative UMP party has formed a hard-right wing, the Popular Right, that berates immigration and has espoused anti-Muslim themes in a low-key echo of Bloc Identitaire.

"The combat is urgent. We don't have the choice," said Bloc Identitaire member Jean-Christophe Oberlaender, whose arms are tattooed with what he said are ancient religious sayings.

He was among some 50 people attending a daylong Bloc meeting outside this small Provencal town whose origins date from Roman times.

"These products will soon be very rare in France," he said of the pork and wine being served at lunch.

Bloc Identitaire, also opposed to multiculturalism and globalization, has the largest footprint of myriad groups on the extreme-right fringes of France, and appears to be harnessing influence beyond its numbers.

Bloc officials put membership at some 4,000 — a figure experts say is exaggerated. Regional alliances with other "identity" groups in France and their heavy use of the Internet to spread their word to the mainstream public make a real count difficult.

The movement opposes violence in its bid to erase all traces of Muslim culture in France. But violence has been known to follow its members — something they blame on neo-Nazi hangers-on.

Earlier this year, a rally in Lyon called the "march of pigs" turned into a clash between Bloc Identitaire supporters and extreme leftists — kept apart by hundreds of police called in ahead of time. Several local businesses were damaged, including a kebab restaurant.

Bloc Identitaire militants ferret out plans by Muslim communities to build mosques and campaign to stop them. An "identity guerrilla" pamphlet spells out how to raise awareness of Muslim initiatives, from mosques to halal food restaurants, and infiltrate culture or sports clubs popular with Muslims.

A mosque project in the village of Tourrette in southern France was their latest target and, they claim, success.

After discovering plans by a Muslim association to convert a villa into a mosque, Bloc Identitaire militants flooded the area with protest fliers, met with the mayor and organized a demonstration. The mosque project was scrapped in October, days before the rally was to be held.

Nourreddine Benzirar, a dentist with Moroccan origins who led plans for the mosque, claimed the project collapsed over funding, not because of Bloc Identitaire, and vowed to press forward with a mosque once money is available.

"Pressure doesn't scare us," he said by telephone.

France has passed laws in recent years banning Islamic headscarves in schools and banning Islamic face veils anywhere in public, laws embraced by the mainstream left and right as upholding secular French traditions but that many see as stigmatizing Muslims.

The recent gathering of Bloc Identitaire revealed an ideological and religious mix, from pagans who worship the gods of the ancient Norse peoples, to devout Catholics and others simply searching for a voice that reflects their worries about France's future.

"Masters at home" is their motto, but "revolution" was the watchword at the gathering near the city of Brignoles, where a National Front member is mayor.

The Bloc Identitaire denies any formal alliances with the National Front. Unlike the bigger movement it is pro-European and wants to keep France in the 27-nation EU. It spins ties with other European far-right groups in Britain and some other European cities.

The national treasurer, Dominique Lescure, recently traveled to Russia, with its burgeoning and violent extreme right, to meet with groups in cities as far away as Vladivostok on the Pacific coast.

National Front presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, meanwhile, is trying to tame her party's image to appeal to a broader public after decades under the helm of her father, party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, a scrappy, charismatic figure repeatedly convicted for racist and anti-Semitic remarks. He stunned the world by reaching the runoffs in 2002 presidential elections, before being trounced by a rare coalition of France's mainstream parties, assuring victory for incumbent Jacques Chirac.

Marine Le Pen has told Jews they have nothing to fear from the National Front and even briefly met Israel's ambassador to the United Nations during a recent trip to the United States.

Instead, she has pointedly targeted Muslims and the spread of Islamic culture, in the name of the French principle of secularism — mimicking the message of Bloc Identitaire.

The Bloc "uncovers the themes for the National Front," said Erwan Lecoeur, a sociologist who studies the extreme right.

The National Front has for years played the role of spoiler in French elections, and candidates from the mainstream right typically try to woo voters away from the extreme party. Polls put Marine Le Pen in third place behind Sarkozy, in second, with Socialist Francois Hollande in the lead.

Bloc Identitaire, born in 2003, raised its profile several winters ago by dishing out pork soup, so-called "identity soup," for the homeless.

It thrives on evoking the legends of France's history.

"For me, France has a reason to exist because of its past ... its knights, its chateaux, the France of the Gaulois, the France of the Romans," said Michel De Susanne, a 34-year-old computer technician who heads the Bloc's Marseille chapter.

The bloc has held street parties featuring aperitifs of wine and sausage. Some were canceled by authorities, but last year, chased from a heavily immigrant Paris neighborhood, they managed to recamp on the famed Champs-Elysees, near the Arc de Triomphe.

Bloc officials claim their group is neither racist nor anti-Muslim but contend that the Muslim population in France has reached an unacceptable critical mass with designs on supplanting the local culture.

"We're here to make a revolution ... We're not here to scare our grandmothers or the candy salesman," Richard Rudier, a member of the Bloc's executive board, said in a speech before the crowd at the Provence gathering. "We want to scare the establishment."

For Oberlaender, the target isn't just Muslims.

"Today, it's the Arabs. If it's the Chinese tomorrow, I'll combat the Chinese."