Jean-Marie Le Pen, the veteran French far-right leader, launched his fifth presidential campaign yesterday standing on an 18th-century battlefield detested by many of his supporters and revered by many of his enemies.
M. Le Pen, 78, chose to go to Valmy, east of Paris - a shrine to the French Revolution and the French Republic - as part of an attempt to reposition himself as a man who stands in the mainstream of French politics.
He said France faced, as it did at the battle of Valmy in September 1792, extinction as a nation. The country had seven months before next spring's presidential election to "conquer or perish".
"Either France defeats hostile foreign powers or it tamely abandons through the ballot box its history and its soul to the enemy forces of globalised capitalism, communitarism and uncontrolled immigration," M. Le Pen said.
In a striking departure from traditional Le Pen racial rhetoric, he said that he was making his appeal to all French people, even those of "foreign origin". But the most calculated, and controversial, aspect of his speech was its location. Mr Le Pen was addressing a group of 100 faithful supporters and party officials on a battlefield in the departément of the Marne, about 50 miles east of Paris.
A victory over the Prussians at Valmy on 20 September 1792 by a French revolutionary mob led directly to the abolition of the monarchy and the creation of the French Republic. The battlefield has traditionally been seen by many on the French far right as a shrine to Republican values such as égalité and fraternité, which - according to ultra-nationalist or royalist dogma - have destroyed the greatness of the French nation.
M. Le Pen's decision, in effect, to launch his presidential campaign in Valmy has brought public protests from several of the tribes which make up his far-right National Front party, including the Royalists and fundamentalist Catholics.
It was a deliberate move. Under the influence of his youngest daughter and campaign manager, Marine, the leader of the National Front has decided to try to tone down his image as a xenophobic rabble-rouser. Valmy was chosen as an attempt to portray Le Pen as a man who accepts the institutions of the French state and the majority interpretation of more than two centuries of French history.
Despite his advanced age, the ultra-nationalist leader says he can, again, send shock waves through European politics by reaching the two-candidate second round of the presidential election, as he did in April 2002. Opinion polls suggest he has no chance but they have often been wrong about M. Le Pen. Events and issues seem to be moving in his favour. The riots in multi-racial suburbs last autumn, a rise in crime figures and rows over illegal immigration all seem to play into M. Le Pen's hands.
The most recent polls give him more support - up to 15 per cent - than they did in the run-up to any of his four previous presidential campaigns. On this occasion, he is likely to face charismatic, new faces from the centre-left and the centre-right, who are both scoring about 30 per cent in the polls.
The likely centre-right candidate, the Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, has created an image as a man tough on crime and immigration. Segolénè Royal, the front-runner for the Socialist nomination, is strong on "family values" and is also attracting support from occasional Le Pen voters.
In his speech yesterday, M. Le Pen assailed both of them. He said Mme Royal had abandoned the "hope and generosity" which used to be offered by the left in favour of an "advertising campaign". M. Sarkozy, he said, was nothing more than a "bourgeois Le Pen, a Le Pen in a tie".Reuse content