Ex-para comes down to earth

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Indy Politics

in Paris

Jean-Marie Le Pen was downcast as the exit polls for France's presidential election started to come in. Earlier in the day, the National Front leader had been in typically bouncy form as he voted in Paris, and his 15 per cent score in the first round of the election should have sent his spirits soaring on Sunday night. But he was decidedly down in the mouth as he heard of the first exit polls in his big white villa on a hill outside the capital.

The reason for his disappointment spoke volumes about the ambition of the ex-paratrooper who has built his extreme right-wing movement into one of France's big four political parties. Mr Le Pen had actually been hoping that he would finish second in the first round and so go on to the final run-off ballot on 7 May.

Achieving the Front's biggest electoral score was not enough: Mr Le Pen believes he can end up running the country. The truth which dawned on France yesterday is that the far-right won very nearly 20 per cent of the vote on Sunday - 15 per cent for Mr Le Pen and 4.75 per cent for the reactionary, anti-Euro, family values candidate, Philippe de Villiers.

Had Mr de Villiers withdrawn, as Mr Le Pen called on him to do, the National Front leader could have given the Gaullist Jacques Chirac a close run for second place.

Mr Le Pen is France's best political orator, a man of greater learning than he lets on, who is by turns truculent and wounding, warm and reassuring, a teller of off-colour jokes and a man whose voice vibrates with reverence when he speaks of those who died to protect France from the threatening outside world. Audiences never leave his meetings dissatisfied.

In the present climate this message is one which goes down well. The French are worried - they are unsure of their place in the world, they cannot understand why unemployment remains so stubbornly high, they take more tranquillisers than any other European nation and they lack the presidential father figure which De Gaulle's republic was meant to provide.

Mr Le Pen's appeal has spread from the original southern and city bases to traditional conservative areas of the east, where he headed the poll in three departments and into the industrial north. In all, 10 of the 90 metropolitan departments gave Mr Le Pen more than 20 per cent of the vote and 30 departments more than 17 per cent.

In seven departments, hefinished ahead of both Mr Chirac and the Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, and he headed the poll in cities such as Marseilles, Metz, Avignon and Mulhouse.

The Front is now looking forward to municipal elections being held in June. It hopes to capture the mayor's office in Toulon, where Mr Le Pen got 24 per cent of the vote on Sunday. If, as many analysts here believe, French politics is undergoing a sea change as voters lose patience with the political class that has ruled for the past 25 years, Mr Le Pen will be an important element in the realignments of the next few years.

He was the oldest of this year's candidates, but the nature of his message can be seen as promising the change France seems to want.

Above all, he has shown the potency of combining old reactionary strains in French life with the visceral late 20th century worries of ordinary people.