Angry protesters give Le Pen new role as victim

Hecklers force cancellation of far-right leader's press conference as President reinvents himself as saviour of democracy
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Jean-Marie Le Pen's bid to take his presidential campaign to the heart of the European Union descended into chaos yesterday when the far-right leader abandoned a press conference amid rowdy protests, scuffling and a picket by MEPs.

Socialist Euro-MPs, some wearing anti-Nazi sweatshirts, appeared to score a spectacular own goal by preventing Mr Le Pen's press conference, which had been planned at the European Parliament.

Mr Le Pen, who remains an MEP despite several attempts to ban him, had intended to outline his proposals for France to withdraw from the EU. But when MEPs and campaigners arrived to protest, Mr Le Pen refused to appear, claiming he was being prevented from exercising his right to free speech.

"We'll have a press conference when we have security, and which will only be open to journalists, not to provocateurs," said Jean-Claude Martinez, an MEP for Mr Le Pen's National Front party. He said the meeting looked as if it had been arranged by supporters of his rival in the presidential election, Jacques Chirac.

In the chaotic scenes that followed, angry journalists confronted Euro-MPs, and pies were thrown at Mr Martinez and the Belgian right-wing extremist Karel Dillen, as scuffles broke out.

The difficult task of allowing Mr Le Pen to present himself as a victim was achieved after a rowdy afternoon during which the far-right leader took his seat in the chamber amid massive media attention.

In a debate on the Middle East, Chris Patten, the European commissioner for external affairs, described the right-wing extremism exemplified by Mr Le Pen as "one of the less agreeable aspects of European civilisation".

Outside the chamber one MEP distributed leaflets entitled "Don't Vote Nazi" while, inside, MEPs held up banners declaring "Non" as the National Front leader began his speech. There were boos and jeers as Mr Le Pen rose to speak on the Middle East.

Although the president of the Parliament, Pat Cox, urged MEPs to be quiet and allow Mr Le Pen the floor, occasional heckling continued. In the event, Mr Le Pen spoke for less than a minute – interruptions included – telling colleagues that the "eruption of violence in the cradle of Jesus seems almost pre-apocalyptical," and criticising the lack of involvement of France and the EU.

They were absent from the fray, he claimed, because they were "following the orders of America and of Javier Solana, [the EU's foreign policy supremo], the former secretary general of Nato. We can only deplore this."

Mr Le Pen's failure to take up his allotted time, although it was just two minutes, was seen by many MEPs as evidence of his desire to exploit his appearance as a publicity stunt.

Simon Murphy, leader of the Labour MEPs in the European Parliament, said: "Le Pen is a parasite on the democracy of the European Parliament. He is abusing the place, turning it into a media circus."

Claude Moraes, a Labour former commissioner for racial equality, said Mr Le Pen had "crossed the line because of his support for repatriation".

But the tactic of protesters who invaded the press room was recognised as an own goal by others on the left. Kathalijne Buitenweg, a Dutch Green MEP, said: "It was a good thing that there were protests outside. But MEPs and protesters were sitting in chairs reserved for the media, making it impossible for them to do their work.

"People also held Le Pen back, making it difficult for him to move. What happened made him appear a victim of undemocratic behaviour. Le Pen has a lot of ridiculous ideas but we can only fight them if we have free speech." Mr Le Pen has fought to keep his seat in the parliament although the French government tried to strip him of his right to attend the assembly.

The leader of the National Front took the issue to the European Court of Justice and won a suspension of the decision to bar him, pending a final ruling.