Le Pen losing grip on control of the far right

Contenders to take on the leadership of the NF have begun jostling for position. John Lichfield in Paris reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online
IS THE Jean-Marie Le Pen era of the French far right drawing gently to a close? The President of the National Front - le chef or la bete as he likes to be called - has been seriously weakened inside his own party in recent days. First, he appears to have given up a long struggle to prevent the emergence of his de facto number two, Bruno Megret, as his all-but-anointed heir-apparent.

Secondly, one of the other senior figures in the party - its only sitting MP - has delivered a stinging snub to Mr Le Pen before a cheering FN audience. Jean-Marie Le Chevallier, deputy for Toulon, was disqualified by the French Constitutional Council last week for financial irregularities in his campaign last May. He then announced, to an FN youth conference, that his wife, Cendrine, also a rising power in the party, would run to succeed him.

Worse, he let it be known that he had first offered the chance to re- win the seat in a by-election this spring to Mr Le Pen himself. He revealed that the President of the NF, notoriously reluctant to put himself directly into the electoral line of fire, had turned the offer down. The two developments, taken together, have been interpreted both inside the NF and outside as the beginning of the long anticipated struggle for succession: Mr Le Pen is 70 in June.

Mr Megret presents himself as the potentially respectable face of the far right, who could forge alliances with the traditional centre-right parties. But he is hated by many in the party and accused by some as being more ideologically extreme, in private, than Mr Le Pen. Mr Le Chevallier, a former member of the centre-right UDF, may fancy his chances of emerging as a compromise candidate to lead the French ultra right into the new millennium. No overt move against Mr Le Pen is likely before the next Presidential election in 2002.

But political commentators in France have noted a sharp change in Mr Le Pen's public utterances on Mr Megret in recent weeks. Where previously he had denigrated, even insulted, his number two in public, Mr Le Pen told a radio interviewer recently that he could envisage him as his successor. He described him as a "very remarkable man".

The events in Toulon are a case of history repeating itself. Mr Megret's wife, Catherine, won election for the mayorship of Vitrolles last year after a previous election was declared void. The difference was that Mr Le Pen picked Mrs Megret to run in Vitrolles personally. Mr Le Chevallier picked his wife without waiting for Mr Le Pen's approval. Officially the decision has to be ratified by the party, but the Le Chevalliers have such a powerful personal power base in Toulon that it appears Mr Le Pen has been presented with a fait accompli.