It looks like a political oxymoron, but Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front is poised to strike an alliance with France's large immigrant Muslim community.
A generation after France's right-wing party began its surge with a tough anti-immigration campaign tinged with both racism and anti-Semitism, three factors are coming into play that could spell a strategic realignment.
These factors, which are still little grasped outside political circles in France but will have an enormous impact, include:
* The Islamicization of France is largely a fait accompli. It is assumed that 6 to 8 million citizens or residents of France, 10% to 13% out of a global population of 62 million, are Muslim by now. And that the Muslim community, being more prolific, is much younger than the rest of the population: As much as 25% of French citizens or residents under 20 is Muslim, with the number reaching 40% or 50% in the big cities.
* The National Front is surprisingly popular among Muslim immigrants or second-generation Muslim citizens. For all its campaigning about immigration, Mr. Le Pen's party has always extended support to Arab and Islamic causes abroad, from Saddam's Iraq to Arafat's or Hamas Palestine, and from Al Qaeda to Iran. And it is as firmly anti-American and anti-Jewish as the Muslim community itself tends to be.
* The attraction of the French far left, which accounts for another 20% of the national vote, toward Islam, rabid anti-Americanism, and even anti-Semitism, a phenomenon underscored by the emergence of Dieudonne, a former liberal music-hall humorist who has turned into an enormously popular French equivalent of Louis Farrakhan. Dieudonne, the son of a black Camerounese father and a white French mother, claims that Jews were the main European slave traders in the 17th and 18th centuries. He refers to civic and educational programs about the Holocaust as "memory pornography." He has welcomed the electoral victory of Hamas in Palestine. According to the philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, he is in moral terms "Le Pen's son."
Mr. Le Pen's inner circle seems to have entertained such a strategy for quite a time. Back in 1999, Samuel Marechal, one of Mr. Le Pen's sons-in-law, stated that France was becoming "a multiethnic and multireligious society," and that "Islam was now France's second religion."
This was greeted by an outcry among the Front's rank and file and Mr. Marechal had to step down from various positions. Still, he remained one of Mr. Le Pen's closest advisors.
More recently, Jean-Claude Martinez, a National Front member of the European Parliament and Mr. Le Pen's "strategic adviser," has reiterated Mr. Marechal's challenge in a book issued under the improbable title "To all French citizens who may have voted for Le Pen if only once in their life."
He argued that the National Front must adjust to globalization, forget about some of its founding myths, like "Joan of Arc fighting an alien invasion," and welcome immigrant blacks and Arabs into the national fold.
He even expressed enthusiasm for black and Arab rap, as long as it is sung in French rather than English. This time there was no talk of disciplinary measures against the heretic.
Various sources are now reporting that Mr. Martinez is supported by Marine Le Pen, Jean-Marie's eldest daughter and heir apparent.
During the 2005 riots, when even communist and socialist mayors were asking for police and even army deployment in the French urban communities, the National Front refrained from any active anti-immigrant or anti-Islamic campaigning.
Over the last weeks, in the wake of the crisis over the Danish cartoons, the National Front has sided with Muslims in their claim that "religious sensibilities must be respected."
"We have nothing against Islam as a religion," the National Front Federation of the Var county, in Southern France, stated earlier this month.
Political analysts wonder how far the experiment can go. The real issue, many analysts say, is a schism within the French far right on who is the chief enemy.
The National Front has always been a coalition of two very distinct political families: Neofascists, like Mr. Le Pen himself, and traditional, Christian right-wingers.
Neofascists think Jews and Americans are the chief enemy, rather than Arabs and Muslims. In a way, they even tend to celebrate Arabs and Muslims as fellow fascists. As for Christian right-wingers, they see Arabs and Muslims as the chief enemy.
For years, Mr. Le Pen has been pretending he is a Christian right-winger rather than a Neofascist and that resistance to Muslim immigration is his major concern. Now he has emerged on the side of the Neofascist branch and is ready to drop the anti-Muslim issue.
The Christian right-wingers - who may have provided more than 50% of the party activists and more than 50% of the voters - are horrified, feel betrayed and have started deserting en masse. Many are turning to Philippe de Villiers, France's chief Eurosceptic, who is quickly reorganizing his own party, Mouvement Pour la France or MPF, into a nativist, Christian-minded, anti-Muslim group.
According to the newspaper Liberation, the global National Front membership has dropped from 40,000 in the late 1990s to 20,000 in 2002 and to 12,000 in 2005.
According to CSA, a polling institute, support for Mr. Le Pen among prospective voters has dropped to 9% in February from 11% in December and 12% in September. During the same period, MPF's support more than doubled to 7%. What remains to be seen is whether Le Pen will actually compensate the Christian right-wingers' hemorrhage with a substantial influx of Muslim supporters.
Islamic leaders in France are advising their followers to act as "democratic and responsible citizens," i.e., to register as prospective voters and to enter as full-fledged activists into all major political parties, either right of left. Indeed, a reconstructed, Muslim-friendly National Front stands a good chance to win many of them.