Will the Gaullists deal with the Devil?

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The Independent Online
The French centre-right is tempted to negotiate with Le Pen. John Lichfield, in Vitrolles, asks whether the moderates will sell their souls

PORTENTOUS choral music. Flashing red, white and blue lights. Dramatic hush. Everyone looks to the right of the auditorium. The Great Man, asserting his greatness, strides in from the left, flanked by his bodyguards in jump-suits. Thunderous applause, rhythmic chanting, dancing in the aisles.

The Great Man is a short, balding, effeminate figure in a blue suit and a colourful tie; he looks like a young Hercule Poirot, at once compelling and slightly absurd. He is Bruno Megret, the second power (and rising) on the French far-right. He gives an effective speech, full of the usual mockery and paranoia and coded racism of the National Front. His central message - before tomorrow's regional and local elections - is "everything is going our way".

The sub-text is: "everything is going my way." The most obvious victors in tomorrow's elections, covering 22 French regions and 96 departements, plus overseas territories, will be the Left. Ten months after coming to power in a general election, the Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, should be able to claim victory in 17 out of the 22 regional contests.

In the last poll of its kind, in 1992, the Left was flattened: the centre- right parties won in 20 regions, foreshadowing their crushing victory in the parliamentary election the following year. Mitterrandism was dead, said the pundits; the Left was out of power for a generation. But six years later the Socialists, and their Communist and Green allies, are on the point of taking over virtually all the levers of national and regional political power in France.

The only significant exception is the presidency, held by Jacques Chirac, the Gaullist, until 2002. But even Mr Chirac's stronghold is predicted to disappear beneath the pink-red-green tide. The Ile-de-France, the greater Paris area,has been the political and financial playground of Mr Chirac's RPR party for 26 years: tomorrow it is likely to fall to the Left.

The predicted success of the Socialists and their allies is a tribute to the skill of Mr Jospin in finessing budgetary problems and keeping his troublesome alliance together. It is also a symptom of a rising economic barometer in France. It owes something, equally, to the incompetence of the centre-right parties, who have run a woefully flat and empty campaign. President Chirac's popularity is soaring with the economy but his friends and fraternal enemies on the centre-right remain bereft of ideas, leadership and fresh faces.

It does not take a mathematical genius, however, to work out that there is another, darker, explanation for the Left's likely success. The National Front is predicted to gain its highest ever score - 16 per cent - in regional elections. In 15 of the 17 regions in which the Left will top the poll, the NF will hold the balance of power.

In this region - Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur - there is a close, three- horse race and an outside chance that the National Front will top the poll. This could - although it is unlikely - make Jean-Marie Le Pen the regional president.

In other words, a majority of voters in almost all French regions will vote for right-wing parties tomorrow, but the vote will be split between traditional right and far right and the left-wing coalition will win the elections.

The leaders of the centre-right parties are refusing adamantly to work with the National Front, which is almost the only thing to their credit. They will therefore have to work with left-wing minority regional governments all over France.

Something similar happened in the parliamentary elections last year. Mr Jospin owes his majority in the National Assembly to the success of the NF in splitting the anti-Left vote.

Gauging the real or potential strength of the Far Right in France is a difficult business; there are many reasons to believe, and hope, that the National Front may have reached its high-water mark. Disapproval of the NF remains huge (well over 70 per cent). The economy is recovering. Jean-Marie Le Pen faces more dissension within the party than ever before. He has run a poor, and lazy, campaign for the presidency of the Greater Provence region. Despite the closeness of the polls, he has made no appearance in the South in the last week. As usual, he prefers to distance himself from possible failure, rather than fight for victory.

This compares sharply with the tireless efforts of his Number Two and undeclared rival, Bruno Megret, who has been working the ground in the Bouches-de-Rhone (greater Marseilles) area for months. The victory last year of his wife, Catherine, in the mayoral election in Vitrolles, in the northern outer suburbs of Marseilles, makes Megret a greater hero in these parts than Le Pen. The name of the NF leader was scarcely mentioned at the party's last big regional rally.

Whatever its internal difficulties, the NF now sprawls across enough political territory to make life difficult for the traditional Right. This is frustrating for the grass-roots and, increasingly, a temptation.

Throughout this campaign, there have been angry centre-right noises demanding freedom to make deals with the NF after the election. These voices, especially strident in the Ile-de-France and here in the Midi, have been shouted down by the party leaderships, which insist that the NF is beyond the moral and political pale.

At his final rally in Vitrolles, Mr Megret predicted that this position would become untenable: he said many centre-right regional councillors would, in a close vote, support the NF, not the Left. Hence his comment: "We have not yet won the electoral battle but we have already won the political battle ... everything is going our way."

The traditional right may, or may not, keep its members in line this time. But this issue - to fraternise or not with the NF - will remain the most important and destructive issue in French party politics into the next century. Much will depend on the rise of Mr Megret. Although allegedly even more extreme in his private views than Mr Le Pen, he is regarded, and regards himself, as the man who could pull the whole of the French anti-Left together and reposition it sharply to the right.