France sees a spectre of President Le Pen

NF on brink of most significant conquest in 25 years, writes John Lichfield in Paris
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The Independent Online
THE SPECTRE which haunts respectable political opinion in France - the spectre of a President Jean-Marie Le Pen - could become disturbing reality today.

The leader of the far-right National Front hopes to brow-beat his new- found allies from the French centre-right into choosing him this morning as president of the Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur region: one of the most populous and high-profile areas of France, covering the Mediterranean coast from Marseilles to Nice. If he persuades 21 dissident members of the Gaullist RPR party and the liberal UDF alliance to back him when the regional assembly meets this morning, the National Front will have made the most significant electoral conquest in its 25-year history. The regional presidency does not bestow enormous power but it would give the NF the vital oxygen of respectability.

It may be, however, that Mr Le Pen has over-reached himself. The National Front moved at the weekend to spring the trap into which it had tempted rebellious elements of the "traditional" right last week. Five centre- right regional presidents were chosen on Friday with NF votes, despite threats from their national leadership.

The Front said at the weekend that it expected the dissident centre-right to return the favour and make Mr Le Pen, 69, president of greater Provence today. (The NF won 37 seats in the regional elections last Sunday week, the same as the "traditional" right parties.) As a quid pro quo, the NF said it would help to elect a centre-right rebel today in the greater Paris region, the Ile-de-France. This may be too much, too soon, even for the rebels of the "respectable" right. They were still seeking to claim at the weekend that they had accepted NF support, without preconditions and without formal alliances.

The abrupt demand that Mr Le Pen should be made, on the back-scratching principle, regional president of the third most populous region of France has unmasked this pretence. The 21 rebels in Provence had, foolishly, hoped that the 37 NF councillors would vote for one of them as president today: but the Front made it clear on Saturday night that this was a non- starter. One compromise possibility may be the election as regional president of another Front figure, possibly the party's Number Two, Bruno Megret, or the mayor of Toulon, Jean-Marie Le Chevallier.

Whatever way the vote goes in Marseilles, France is faced with a new and dangerous political landscape. The "respectable" or traditional right has exploded into two camps. There is a new de facto, right-wing grouping, mostly from the UDF but also containing parts of the Gaullist RPR, which will be forced into permanent electoral alliance with the NF. The "Republican" rump of the RPR, and remnants of the UDF, refusing all political deals with a xenophobic and anti-democratic party, will be left to rally around a much weakened President Jacques Chirac. The upshot, according to one RPR leader, could be to leave the French left "in power for the next 50 years". The sheer pace of political developments in France in the last seven days has been breath-taking - and scaring. As a result of an election in which 40 per cent of those eligible did not bother to vote, the political landscape of post-war France has been bulldozed.

The historian of French right-wing politics, Rene Remond, said yesterday: "Now that the barrier which separated the NF from other parties has fallen, everything is possible." He compared the situation to the 1930s, when large elements of the right became spell-bound by fascism. The problem now, as then, he said, is the muddled and poorly led centre-right offered a "weak identity" and the NF a "strong identity". From being a "pole of repulsion, the NF had become a pole of attraction".

A more optimistic view, espoused by the Gaullist president Philippe Seguin, can be summed up in two words: "good riddance". Mr Seguin said the explosion of the right was inevitable and would allow the construction of a new, healthier, conservative-liberal party, or federation, based on republican and democratic values. His optimism is based on the fact that 70 per cent of the centre-right's electorate opposes deals with the NF. Much depends on who, if anyone, emerges as the leader of the centre- right rebels. The favourite, in his own eyes at any rate, must be Alain Madelin, former economics minister, self-professed Thatcherite and leader of one of the right-wing parties within the UDF. He was the only centre- right party leader to congratulate the dissidents last Friday.