Eiffel Tower looks down coldly on Le Pen bandwagon

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The Independent Online
The leader of France's extreme right-wing National Front, Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose party is embroiled in a new controversy over racial violence, yesterday launched his campaign to win the country's presidency from beneath the giant struts of the Eiffel Tower.

Mumm Cordon Rouge was drunk from plastic glasses and there was much waving of mini-tricolors before a red, white and blue motorcade - a couple of lorries, 16 mini-buses, and several cars with tinted glass - swung out into the traffic at 2pm precisely, headlamps blazing, horns blaring, on the first stage of a national tour.

But despite the interventions of an eight-piece jazz band, the send-off for this, Mr Le Pen's third presidential campaign, seemed strangely muted. Few people had turned out except friends and relatives of the convoy drivers and several elderly women who had plastered themselves with National Front stickers and had small dogs in tow.

One reason for the poor turn-out may have been a partly successful attempt by the staff of the Eiffel Tower to close the precincts off to visitors in protest at the National Front's gathering. They issued a statement saying they found it "deplorable that this monument, which is often used as a symbol of France, should serve as a springboard for Le Pen and his ideas".

Although entrances to the precinct were chained off, however, crowds of tourists still managed somehow to pass through to queue for the lifts.

There was no organised protest against the convoy, though a few small groups of young blacks and North Africans stood outside the cordon watching proceedings with undisguised hatred in their eyes.

Among those inside the cordon, there was much talk of the killing in Marseilles last week of Ibrahim Ali, a young black Frenchman, who was shot dead on his way home from a concert with friends.

The French press, which has no qualms about finding people guilty before trial, said that the killing was carried out by three National Front supporters who were putting up posters in the area at the time. One has been charged with murder, the other two with complicity.

The apparently deliberate killing has shocked France and overshadowed the launch of the National Front's campaign - to the point where its supporters yesterday were describing it as a "deliberate provocation" intended to reduce Mr Le Pen's support. "We don't condone the deed," was a common line, "but..."

The Front's first official reaction last week - which many found almost as shocking as the killing itself - was to say that the people putting up the posters would only have killed in self-defence and must have been attacked, though no evidence was offered for this thesis.

Mr Le Pen, in his first pre-election television appearance on Sunday night, repeated the self-defence theory, describing the killing as "a serious accident" and suggested that the man in his fifties who allegedly fired the shot had "panicked".

He added, however, that party activists were not permitted to carry weapons, and said that if the killers were armed, they were not members of the National Front.

He also chided the interviewer - a replacement brought in because the regular presenter, Anne Sinclair, refused to interview Mr Le Pen - with unjustifiably bringing the race and immigration issue to the fore.

Although Mr Le Pen's standing in the opinion polls, with a projected 10 per cent of the vote in the first round, is lower than his performance eight years ago, the attraction of the Front's first two pledges - the creation of 4 million jobs and a future for young French people - for some of the 26 per cent of France's under-25s who are unemployed was apparent from the young people helping with the convoy.