As many as 20% of the people in Châteaurenard, France are ethnic Arabs, many of them young, undereducated, unemployed and isolated
The result, locals and experts say, is the rise of a contagious fear - of France's economic future, of globalization, of the immigrant - that makes the Châteaurenards of France fertile terrain for the extreme- right National Front in the presidential election next spring.
"I take off my hat to those immigrants who took the boat here to work," said Jean Courtois, a 61-year-old retiree who until 2001 sat on the city council as a National Front representative. "But there is a huge problem with those who don't want to integrate. When I see a woman in a veil walking in Châteaurenard, it revolts me."
During the first round of the last presidential election in 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the National Front candidate, came in first here, with almost twice as many votes as President Jacques Chirac.
In a nationwide referendum last year, the town voted by a 2-to-1 ratio - more than the national average - against a European constitution that was seen here as a ploy to open France's doors to cheap immigrant labor and cede sovereign rights to the European Union.
Ségolène Royal, the favorite to win the Socialist Party nomination for the presidency, announced her candidacy last week from the nearby town of Vitrolles. She called it a "symbol" of the new battleground because in 1997 it became the first French town to elect a National Front mayor.
"In so many places, particularly in the south, you have people in revolt: unhappy farmers, ones who are anti-immigrants and ones trying to assert their Frenchness," said Jean Viard, a political scientist and author of a book on the National Front in Provence. "The collective identity has been weakened. So the National Front occupies a space that has been left empty."
Reynes, the mayor, put it more bluntly. "The extreme right becomes the receptacle into which people put all their frustrations," he said. "You could put a National Front hat on a donkey's head, and it will get 20 percent of the vote."
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