By Tony Connelly, Europe Editor

In the village of Dugny, to the north east of Paris, a small group of political activists have gathered in the home of Gil Clavel, a local ski instructor. Monsieur Clavel, who drives a peugeot that has seen better days, is serving home made buns and coffee to two portly and polite middle-aged ladies, and a young man named Charles, in his small, white painted terraced home.

The excited chatter and the rattle of coffee cups are redolent of a suburban book-club, but political pollsters have identified this harmless-looking gathering as the vanguard of a rather shadowy force which has upended the political order.

All four are members of Marine Le Pen’s National Front. She won nearly 18% in the first round of the presidential election, and is now poised for a sweep of new seats in June’s legislative elections.

“She is capable, intelligent, she’s really revolutionary,” declares Annie Saint-Cyr, sitting on the edge of the sofa.

But what, I wondered, motivated these innocuous-seeming citizens to support a party once infamous for its skin-heads, its xenophobia, and a leader, who said the holocaust was a mere detail of history.

Ultimately it came down to one idea.

“It’s about barriers,” said Charles. “We need to defend the country.”

He continued: “We need barriers against immigration. Against globalisation. Against competition. Against the outsourcing by French companies.”

Charles is now speaking through gritted teeth.

“We need to protect the country. We need to protect French products. We need respect for the law.”

Attica, a dark haired lady who will run in the national assembly elections, continues.

“We need to protect particular French things, French culture.”

I ask her for examples. “Things that have grown up over centuries,” she cries. “We need to protect French traditions, French agriculture.”

A French wine producer, she says, may have been growing a particular wine for decades, but now he can’t cope because of competition from outside.

Finally, Gil Clavel sums it up. “I’m a normal citizen, he says, my children go to state schools, I pay my taxes, I try to live my life in a normal way with friends and family, but today we are no longer defended,” he says.

It’s a refrain which has echoed through this extraordinary presidential election, but also others before it.

Marine Le Pen has nuanced the National Front’s ugly image. For those struggling against the economic crisis she provides simple certitudes about the outside world. She wants France out of the euro, and out of the Schengen Free travel area.

One poll has found that 23% of those aged between 18 and 22 would vote for the party, another that 37% of French people agreed with their analysis.

There’s a general sense that the country, the health system, the education system are broken, derelict even.

But it appeared to me that what the surge in support for the extreme right represents, is not a fear of foreigners per se, but a fear of the outside world, a fear that the cherished, perhaps even fantasy concept of a France rooted in tradition and agriculture French had been swept away by globalisation, a force that few can understand, never mind control.

And it was also, somehow, that force which was responsible for the apparent erosion of services at home.

Of course, there was no discussion of how France had benefitted from globalisation and how numerous French companies were global leaders.

Trying to comfort people against the slings and arrows of the outside world is not just the preserve of the National Front. Both President Sarkozy and Francois Hollande have touched on similar themes, particularly the former since he has been lurching back and forward to extreme right issues for the past two years.

Francois Hollande has railed against financial markets, Nicolas Sarkozy against immigration. Brussels-bashing is now elevated to an artform in French political discourse, where once it was taboo.

Indeed, French election campaigns are not for the cynical. No campaign speech is complete unless it is punctuated by cries of La France! or Le Peuple Français! to the point where the are delivered as incontrovertible truths raised like barriers against an uncomfortable reality outside.

None of the canidates, except perhaps the centrist François Bayrou, has told voters they need to brace themselves for tough choices is France is to get out of its economic difficulties.

Unemployment has stayed stubborningly high at between 10% and 11%. As much as 56% of the working population is employed in the state sector. Although both candidates have pledged to bring the deficit to 3pc of GDP next year, they are working off growth figures which most economists regards as rather optimistic.

And if those targets start to wobble, France’s borrowing costs could start to go up. For every 100 basis points increase in the premium needed to borrow, France needs to find an extra €3 billion a year.

Later, as I waited at the National Front headquarters in the suburb of Nanterre, I noticed a well-produced banner hung from an appartment window for the benefit of those entering the building just opposite.

“Dear Madame Le Pen,” it read, “I am the son of immigrants, I am creating a start up company in my bedroom, and, whether you like it or not, I am the future of France.

As we parted Monsieur Clavel’s living room, I asked tAttica, the lady aspiring to be one of the national front’s new MPs how to spell her surname. “K-E-D-D-O-U-H, she said. “Keddouh.”

“Yes,” she smiled, “my parents are Algerian.”

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