PARIS, Nov. 15 (UPI) -- It seems a flashback to 2002: The boisterous crowds cheering him on, the media attention, the sense that Jean-Marie Le Pen's French-first, immigrants-go-home message is again resonating in France.
Three years after capturing second place in presidential elections, the head of France's far-right National Front is again making waves -- or rather riding them, as he coasts on the backlash of more than two weeks of violence staged by ethnic-immigrant youths that has roiled this country.
"Immigration, explosion in the suburbs...Le Pen foretold it," reads a banner on his website, accompanied by alarming video images of the country's gritty housing projects going up in smoke.
"This kind of violence by ethnic immigrants naturally fits into the thesis of Jean-Marie Le Pen," said Steven Ekovich, a French politics professor at the American University in Paris. "And he's going to try to profit from this to rebuild his political fortunes based on a fear of violence coming from the suburbs. Not only from the immigrants, but also from the children and grandchildren of immigrants."
Along with soul-searching about whether France's theoretically colorblind integration model is a failure, the rioting and arson attacks that erupted Oct. 27 have also sharpened simmering anti-immigrant sentiments among some French, and support for a law-and-order response among many.
A poll published in Le Parisien newspaper last week found nearly three-quarters of the population supported the current state of emergency which has been extended until February. More than eight out of 10 French said they were "outraged" by the violence.
At a Monday night rally in Paris, 77-year-old Le Pen showed he could still pump up a crowd.
"For years, if not for decades we've been repeating our alarm," the National Front leader bellowed to several hundred gathered across the street from the Louvre Museum. "...of a massive immigration from outside Europe that will result in the submergence and ruin of France, and unhappiness of the immigrants themselves!"
The crowd erupted in clapping and whistles. Then came a steady drumbeat: "Le Pen, President."
"Le Pen is right -- the proof is there with the riots," said a 71-year-old retiree who gave his name only as Robert, and said he lived in some of the housing projects roiled by unrest.
"Look who's been staging the unrest?" he asked. "The blacks and the Arabs. These are racist, anti-white riots."
As France's center-right government grapples for ways to quell the unrest and find long-lasting solutions to its causes, Le Pen's prescriptions are clear cut: Stop immigration and kick out illegal immigrants; dismantle "ethnic ghettos" and give French preference in social services and jobs.
And, he now suggests: Start deporting second-and third-generation immigrants of French nationality who refuse to follow the country's laws and therefore do not deserve to be French citizens.
"The problem is that French never wanted immigration, but we weren't consulted" said 45-year-old Remy Carillon, who carried a sign Monday night reading: "No to Turkey in Europe," in reference to Ankara's quest to join the European Union. "If our government had asked citizens if they wanted immigration for the past decades we French and Europeans would have said, 'no. That's enough.'"
Le Pen claims such sentiments have already boosted the National Front's membership by 3,000-4,000 members since the riots began. And a poll published Sunday in Le Journal du Dimanche placed his popularity at 24 percent -- just five points behind that of France's embattled President Jacques Chirac, his one-time presidential rival.
Three years ago, Le Pen convulsed the nation by placing just behind Chirac in the first-round of presidential elections, with 18 percent of the vote. Although the French president won the second round handily, the outcome was generally viewed as a massive rejection of extremism, rather than an endorsement for Chirac.
Le Pen has declared he will run in the 2007 presidential elections. Besides the handicap of his age -- he will be nearly 79 -- it is far from clear whether current French resentments will translate into massive support for the Front 18 months from now.
"Jean-Marie Le Pen says people are joining his party right now, but he has problems," said Nonna Mayer, a research director at the Paris-based Center for the Study of French Political Life, who is an expert on the far right. "First, the elections aren't tomorrow, and many things can happen."
The National Front is also deeply divided between supporters of the old guard -- led by Le Pen's chosen successor Bruno Gollnisch -- and a new generation, lead by Le Pen's daughter Marine, who are trying to soften the party's extremist image.
Political rivals are also cashing in on Le Pen's anti-immigration, law-and-order message. Chief among them: Philippe de Villiers, head of another rightist party, the Movement For France.
Like Le Pen, de Villiers has also declared his candidacy for the 2007 elections. His message to the rioting youths has essentially been "France, love it or leave it."
"De Villiers embodies a more radical right, but less extremist, more respectable one than the National Front of Jean Marie Le Pen," Mayer notes. "So that could steal away voters, especially those from the traditionalist right who adhere to values of family, order, authority, religion."
France's popular Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, has also been accused of hardening his discourse to attract National Front supporters -- with an eye, too, on a presidential run. While he sparked controversy recently for calling the young rioters "scum," Sarkozy remains France's most popular politician, with about 57 percent support in recent polls.
"I'm not afraid Mr. Sarkozy is trying to take my ideas," Le Pen said Monday, during an interview on Radio Monte Carlo. "Bravo. It shows my ideas are getting somewhere. It's the lePenization of thinking."
Others are not so sure. Even as Le Pen's anti-immigrant message draws new adherents today, experts say these same French may see immigrants very differently tomorrow.
"The opinion is divided," Mayer says. "There is the opinion among some that there is illegal immigration and we must fight against it. But as the population gets older, maybe we'll be very happy to have these immigrants in a few years -- to pay for our social security, to pay for our retirement funds."