Day of judgment for Le Pen over poll fracas

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The Independent Online
IT WAS the liveliest moment in a dull election campaign. By good luck, I was there; by bad luck, I missed the most important incident. As a consequence, I was not giving evidence for or against Jean-Marie Le Pen yesterday when he appeared in a French court accused, in effect, of causing a public affray. The scene was the small town of Mantes-la- Jolie, in the Seine valley west of Paris, two days before the second round of the general election last May. The National Front leader was there to support his daughter, Marie-Caroline, who topped the poll locally in the first round.

It is alleged Mr Le Pen seized the Socialist candidate, and the mayor of a nearby town, Annette Peulvast-Bergeal, by her mayoral sash and screamed in her face. Pictures exist to prove this; unfortunately, my view was blocked at the crucial moment by a scrum of FN security guards and anti- FN protesters.

I can report, because I was standing next to him for extended periods, that Mr Le Pen was in a thoroughly aggressive mood that day, even by his offensive standards. He bounded out of his limousine into the crowd of opponents. During the ensuing 90-minute riot, which moved up and down the high street like one of those ancient football matches played in small British towns, he chased and punched protesters on two occasions. Whenever the fighting died down, it was Mr Le Pen who steered the FN marchers around the outnumbered riot police and into the pack of demonstrators.

He boasted to his daughter, as I was shoved right up against them: "This is nothing to me. I was in the paratroop regiment of the Foreign Legion. I've seen worse than this." "Oui, papa," replied the egg-splattered Marie- Caroline, looking rather bored. On the other hand, it was evident the protesters were equally spoiling for a fight. Eleven of them also appeared in court in Versailles yesterday alongside Mr Le Pen and three of his bodyguards.

He and his cohorts are accused of causing a public affray, and insulting behaviour. The protesters are accused of conspiring violently to impede freedom of political assembly. All face fines of up to pounds 30,000 and, in theory, three years in prison. The trial will end today, though judgment may be reserved.

The timing of the hearing is a little awkward for Mr Le Pen, whose autocratic control of the FN is under serious internal challenge for the first time. His propensity to get himself involved in scrapes of this kind - reinforcing his popularity with far-right die-hards but offending the bulk of the French public - is one of the reasons why internal opponents suggest the should be manoeuvred towards semi-retirement. The National Front leader, 70 in June, is leading the party's campaign in the Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur area in regional elections next month. The party was once given an outside chance of winning the region, making Mr Le Pen regional president. Its hopes have been dimmed by internal wrangling and the negative publicity surrounding the FN leader.

He sent his personal popularity to a new low of 14 per cent late last year by repeating his assertion that the extermination of Jews in Nazi gas-chambers was merely a "detail" of the Second World War.