Boos for Le Pen as NF splits in acrimony

Click to follow
THE MONSTER which has stalked French, and European, politics for the last 15 years will be dismembered and divided today: a Frankenstein movie, played in reverse.

Jean-Marie Le Pen will keep the mouth and the spleen of France's far- right National Front; Bruno Megret will take the legs, brains and most of the muscle.

A two day breakaway NF congress at Marignane, near Marseilles, began yesterday with whistles, boos and insults for Mr Le Pen, who was formally deposed as President. Mr Le Pen was invited to come onto the stage, amid cheers and cat-calls. A spotlight fell on an empty chair. Le Pen had refused to attend, mocking the 2,000 congress delegates as "pirates and Lilliputians" (a reference to the diminutive stature of their leader, the long-time second force in the Front, Mr Megret).

The Congress, amid baying and rhythmic clapping, declared Le Pen to have forfeited his leadership of the party by his failure to turn up. It will today elect Mr Megret, 49, as President and claim to be the true, democratic representative of the French far-right, under the title "Front National - Mouvement National".

Mr Le Pen, 70, will attempt to rebuild and remodel his rump of the party as - more than ever - a vehicle for his own bloated self-esteem. Posters for the "official" National Front have now dropped the party's title altogether in favour of an avuncular picture of le chef and the words "Jean-Marie Le Pen".

In a sense, this is what the six-weeks-old civil war is all about: on the one hand, Le Pen's belief that he is bigger than the party; on the other hand, the Megretiste conviction that the party could be bigger without Le Pen.

One of Megret's lieutenants, Franck Timmermans, read the impeachment charges against le chef yesterday. (As an additional insult he referred to the party's founder throughout as tu not vous, an impertinent familiarity which he admitted that he would not have attempted to his face.)

Timmermans accused Le Pen of having cut off the real workers and brains of the party and listened only to a small band of "parasites, profiteers and courtesans". He said Le Pen had lavished the party's resources on his friends and family, while keeping the grass roots organisations in penury. He had ruined the party's electoral chances with "provocative" (ie racist) remarks. He had linked the NF to the "least respectable" nationalist parties in eastern Europe, including the "insane Russian, Vladimir Zhirinovsky".

Each of these charges - precisely the charges made by the NF's enemies - was received with boos and baying by the Megret faithful.

Who is winning the battle for the French far-right? In the short term, both men seem destined to lose.

An Ipsos poll for the magazine Le Point this week suggested that Mr Le Pen might score only 7 per cent in June, less than half the NF score in recent elections. The polls suggest that Megret's list might score only 4 per cent, which would leave him with no seats. Even the combined total would be the worst far-right score for more than a decade.

By independent estimates, Megret has the support of just under half the party's 42,000 members; 62 out of 104 local branch secretaries; two out of four NF mayors; 138 out of 273 regional councillors and - most surprisingly - the biggest part of the Front's boiler-suited and bovver-booted security service. Bernard Courcelle, head of this organisation, and Le Pen's unsmiling shadow for years, was fired by le chef last week. He announced on Thursday that he was joining Megret.

In broad sociological terms, judging by the attendance at Marignane yesterday, Megret has the 30 and 40 somethings, the better educated and the better off. Le Pen has the support of the NF old guard, the blue-collars and its failing youth movement. He has the NF headquarters and its bank accounts (which are likely to be the object of a vicious legal struggle in coming weeks). The founder President of the party retains the affection of two in every three NF voters, but that may change as the strength of the breakaway becomes clearer.

Le Pen predicts that Megret will not get one per cent of the vote in the European election in June. He may be underestimating Megret once again. On TV, he is a more convincing and more reassuring presence than Le Pen (even if his true views on racial issues may be more extreme). In the short term, Megret's problem is the presence of three other, small hard- right, anti-European but more respectable parties in the European campaign, one of them led by the popular former Gaullist and former interior minister, Charles Pasqua.

In the longer term, it is just this continuing fragmentation of the "traditional" right in France which could provide Megret with his big opportunity. The polls suggest that the total "nationalist", Euro-sceptic vote - now divided five ways - could add up to as much as 30 per cent of the electorate. It is Megret's belief that a cleaned-up National Front could emerge in the new century at the head of an anti-European counter movement in French politics.

On the other hand, the history of the century just ending suggests that the French far-right tends to shrink into insignificance when it turns its talent for hatred against itself.