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Le Pen banned from public office

JEAN-MARIE LE PEN, the leader of the French far-right, was banned from public life for two years yesterday after being found guilty of riotous behaviour on the campaign trail last May.

The court decision bars him from running for any public office, or voting, until 2000. It does not prevent him from continuing as President of the xenophobic National Front but could strengthen the hand of those within the party who would like to put him out to grass.

When the prosecution demanded the ban during the original court hearing in February, Mr Le Pen, 69, was visibly shaken. He said that such a punishment could bring his 50-year political career to a "premature end". While this may be exaggerated, it could certainly promote the already relentless rise of his smooth-talking number two, Bruno Megret.

In a delayed judgment, Mr Le Pen was convicted by the court in Versailles of riotous and insulting behaviour during running street-battles in the small town of Mantes-la-Jolie, west of Paris. He was captured on television film screaming and grabbing at the clothes of the local Socialist candidate (now MP), Annette Peulvast-Bergeal. The court said yesterday that Mr Le Pen had "sought physical confrontation" with his opponents. Such "provocative and aggressive behaviour" was unworthy of a political leader and must be "severely punished".

Apart from the two-year suspension of his civic rights, Mr Le Pen was fined pounds 2,000 and given a suspended three-month prison sentence. The NF announced that its leader would appeal.

If this fails, Mr Le Pen will be prevented from leading the Front's list in the European elections next year. He will be stripped of the seat he won last month in the Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur regional assembly.

No parliamentary or presidential elections are scheduled until 2002 but Mr Le Pen would be banned if either poll was to be called early (which is not out of the question). Mr Le Pen is already under attack within his own party for his clumsy handling of local deals with centre-right politicians last month, which did great damage to the moderate right but might have achieved more.

A younger generation of NF activists now scents a chance of real power. They have come to regard the brutal charisma of Mr Le Pen as more of a trap than an asset. Initially, the party will feel obliged to rally round its "martyred" and "victimised" leader; in the longer run, the ban, coupled with his age, might signal the end of the Le Pen era.