Trouble on Megret's bizarre tour de France

Vote for Europe
Click to follow
THE EUROPEAN elections boring? Not in Evreux. Here, they seem to be the most exciting thing to happen since the town was flattened by allied bombs in 1944. It is 7pm and the main street is deserted (normal enough). But in the upper windows entire families - parents, children, grandmothers, babes in arms - have gathered to watch the passage of a noisy, anti-Fascist parade, equipped with drums, tambourines and plastic trumpets.

The target of the protesters is not, for once, the National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen but his former lieutenant, turned chief rival, Bruno Megret, the man who believes that he can reconstruct the French right. Not just the far right but the whole of the right.

The tiny but tireless Mr Megret is visiting upper Normandy in his attempt to become the only candidate in the European campaign to visit all of the 94 departements of France proper.

The 80 people who turn up for his meeting (filling less than a third of the hall) have to pass through a gauntlet of young people, screaming "Fascist" and "racist" and hooting and whistling in derision. Why do the protesters bother? Don't the opinion polls suggest that Mr Megret's campaign is dead in the water?

Dwarfed absurdly by the lectern (poor local planning), Mr Megret gives an effective, witty speech on the theme: "France for the French. Europe for the Europeans".

Since breaking with Mr Le Pen in December, Mr Megret has adopted a quieter form of dementia, without the martial music and rhythmic baying which adorn National Front meetings. He offers standard, well-worn Eurosceptic arguments, spliced with gut hatred of America and immigrants.

The formula is intended to appeal both to NF voters and part of the "respectable right". It does not seem to be working - yet. Surveys taken before the publication of polls was suspended last weekend show the would- be, Gallic mould-breaker stuck on a miserable 2 to 4 per cent of the vote. He is below the 5 per cent he needs to win seats in the French section of the Euro election, which allocates seats proportionally to the 20 nationwide lists.

Perhaps more importantly, he is below the 5 per cent he needs to scoop pounds 5m in campaign subsidies and to establish himself as a permanent feature of the shattered and scattered French political landscape.

Mr Le Pen is scarcely doing better. The polls give him between 5 and 8 per cent - ahead of Mr Megret in what amounts to a neo-Fascist "primary" - but the lowest score for the National Front since the xenophobic, anti- immigrant, anti-European party first broke through (also in a European election) in 1984.

So far, so good for French democracy. Predictions that two far-right parties would be weaker than one have proved correct - up to now. Hopes that the respectable right would use the opportunity to consolidate, and fill the void, have proved forlorn. The far-right has fallen in two. The centre-right, not to be outdone, has split into three.

For a quarter of a century, the traditional right has consisted of a loose, bad-tempered alliance of the Gaullists and a federation of small parties, the UDF, which itself sprawled from the Thatcherish right to the Ashdownish centre.

It was difficult to say what any of the groups really stood for, other than the personal ambitions of the Gaullist leader, Jacques Chirac, and the other party barons.

The division into three is, in one sense, more coherent than what went before. The Euro-sceptic former Gaullist interior minister, Charles Pasqua, has made an uneasy, anti- Brussels partnership with the Catholic family values nationalist, Philippe de Villiers. Representing something close to the Conservative, Euro-sceptic right in Britain, they are claiming a surprisingly high 12 per cent of the vote.

The rump of the UDF, under the former education minister Francois Bayrou, has become an enthusiastically pro-European federalist party, similar in some respects to the Liberal Democrats in the UK, but allied to the Christian Democrats in the European Parliament.

Mr Bayrou is expected to take around 10 per cent of the vote which would be a disappointment to him.

The vast majority of French voters remain vaguely pro-European but unexcited by European issues. With Lionel Jospin's centre-left government still popular, and unemployment falling gently, there are no pressing domestic issues. A record low turn-out is forecast.

Apathy could still give Mr Megret, by default, the 5 per cent vote he needs to implant himself as a permanent, baleful feature of French politics.