Le Pen faces Cÿte d'Azur poll ban

The veteran French far-right leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, may be barred from standing in potentially explosive regional elections in the south of France next month after failing to prove that he is a taxpayer in the region.

M. Le Pen, 75, has proclaimed himself the favourite to be the next president of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region, despite opinion polls showing the National Front a distant third behind the centre-right and centre-left.

The government now faces a politically charged decision on whether to enforce the rules rigorously and ban M. Le Pen from leading the NF campaign in the Marseilles-Nice region. To do so would allow him to present himself as the victim of a conspiracy by the political establishment - one of M. Le Pen's favourite poses.

The anti-immigrant, anti-EU, anti-American NF leader is already complaining that the "higher echelons" of government are responsible for his failure to win an automatic right to stand. M. Le Pen lives in a château in the exclusive Paris suburb of Saint Cloud but claims that he is also a local tax-payer in Nice because the NF office there is registered in his name. The local tax office refused to give him the certificate he needed, pointing out that the property taxes on the NF headquarters were paid by the party, not M. Le Pen. It is now up to the prefect of the region - the senior national government representative - to decide next week whether he is eligible to stand in the two-round election on 21 and 28 March.

The whole saga bears suspicious similarities to M. Le Pen's complaints that he was being forced out of the presidential election in 2002. The NF leader generated publicity, and sympathy, by complaining that he was having trouble in gathering the 500 signatures of elected officials that he needed to place his name on the ballot paper.

In the end he had more signatures than he needed and caused shock-waves in France, and Europe, by coming second in the first round of voting.

If M. Le Pen did win a majority of seats in the Provence-Côte d'Azur (PACA) region, it would cause a seismic shock almost as great as his first-round success in 2002. (In the second round, he was squashed by President Jacques Chirac by 82 per cent of the vote to 18 per cent.) The xenophobic National Front has won outright victories in towns in the PACA region in the past but has never won control of a large city or region, let alone such a high-profile and populous region as Provence and the Côte d'Azur. M. Le Pen's own pollsters claim that he is attracting almost one in three votes in the area, helped by the economic downturn and continuing fears about immigration and security. Independent polls - often wrong in the past about the scale of NF support - put M. Le Pen's percentage vote in the early 20s, at best, far behind the Socialists and M. Chirac's party, the UMP.

M. Le Pen will be an absentee defendant in a court in Paris today when he will be accused of stirring up racial hatred.

The complaint, brought by the French human rights league, follows a interview given by the NF leader to the newspaper Le Monde last April in which he said: "The day when we have 25 million Muslims in France, instead of 5 million, they will be telling us what to do. The French will have to creep along the walls, casting their eyes down."

The Muslim population of France is 3.7 million, just over 6 per cent of the population.

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