Pint-size general controls NF war

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The Independent Online
THROUGH THE office door, there came the sound of cinematic, martial music, a bit like Wagner's Ring Cycle remixed for Star Wars. When she emerged, Bruno Megret's secretary said, apologetically: "We are doing trials for Saturday."

"Saturday" is, to be be an occasion for reach-me-down demagoguery: dimmed lights and dramatic entrances. Saturday is the start of the breakaway National Front congress in Marignane, near Marseilles, which will "depose" Jean-Marie Le Pen as leader of the most powerful far-right party in western Europe and "elect" Mr Megret.

Mr Le Pen does not see it that way, of course. He refers to the Congress as "Lilliput", a reference to Mr Megret's stature, as well (he hopes) as the rebels' true strength in "his" party and the French electorate.

Since the NF split in December, Mr Le Pen, 70, has lost none of his bombast but he has lost almost all his early battles with Mr Megret. "Le Chef" has been deserted by a large proportion of the party's brains - its most effective and ambitious elected officials and local activists - and, more surprisingly, its muscle - its brutal, boiler-suited security service. Mr Le Pen retains the party HQ, the old guard and the somewhat chaotic youth movement. Mr Megret, 49, claims, with some justification, "all the live forces. Everyone with any quality. Everyone who works hard." He has also won a critical legal battle, giving him the right to continue to use the party's name, which means two "National Fronts" will contest the European elections in June.

Mr Megret, five feet and a bit, has a Napoleonic fetish about size. He refused to be photographed in his temporary office at the le de France regional council. "I don't want to be photographed in a cupboard," he said. Finally, a larger office was found, more fitting for the ambitions of someone who believes that he can be, some time in the new century, President of France.

"The crisis in the NF is not a crisis of ideology or a crisis of policy. There is no difference between myself and Le Pen on ideas or values," he said. "It's a struggle between those who believe the party should continue as the vehicle for the ego of one man and those who believe it should more truly represent the interests of its members and voters and ... aspire to power."

Mr Megret is an unlikely demagogue and an unlikely nationalist. His mother is Greek; his father was one of the first senior French officials in the European Commission. His wife is Russian Jewish.

He comes from the classical background of the French political insider: top Parisian Lycee, Ecole Polytechnique, the Gaullist RPR. But he jumped ship in 1985 to become the de facto number two of the classical party of the outsider, a party he has reconstructed departement by departement along more professional lines.

He did not abandon the French establishment, he insists; it abandoned him, by surrendering French sovereignty to Brussels; by allowing large- scale immigration.

"I can define my beliefs with a quotation from De Gaulle. `France is a country of the white race, the Christian religion and Greco-Latin culture'. That does not mean that only white people or Christians should live here but it does mean that they should be the dominant culture.

"I believe that the human race is a race whose culture depends on living in communities and that the two most important communities ... are the family and the nation. I joined the National Front to defend these values when other parties abandoned them."

It is Mr Megret's particular talent to manage to sound like a Daily Telegraph editorial.

And what of Mr Le Pen's claim that Mr Megret and his followers are the true "racists" and "extremists". "It is false. False. I am not a racist. I am a nationalist. I do not believe that one race is inherently superior to another. But I do believe in putting the French first in France," said Mr Megret.

As for Mr Le Pen's provocatively racist remarks, he renounces them, but feels the need to add: "It is ... a fact that, if you examine the prison population of France, you will find that one third of the prisoners are foreigners, one third are immigrants of recent date, and one third are French.

"I don't say that to prove that the Arabs or Africans are more criminal than any other people. Only that if you have a large immigrant population, removed from their own cultures, they will be fragile economically and socially and more likely to commit crimes."

On this basis, Mr Megret favours draconian new policies to "send home" immigrants who misbehave (and their families). He even favours the removal of French citizenship from any immigrant who commits a crime within 10 years of naturalisation.

However, Mr Megret's figures are false. The proportion of foreigners in French jails is 23 per cent and falling. Of these, only half come from the classic, African and North African groups. Many others are Europeans. There are no statistics to divide the 77 per cent "French" prison population.

There has been a tendency, both in France and abroad, to overestimate Jean-Marie Le Pen. He was ultimately trapped by his role as a malevolent political jester rather than a serious man of power. There has been a parallel tendency to underestimate Mr Megret: even Mr Le Pen made this mistake.

He does not have the charisma of Mr Le Pen; he does not have Le Chef's ability to unite all the tribes of the French far right. But he is capable of taking the extreme nationalist tendency into the next century with a modern, plausible image.