Le Pen's legacy: bitter battle for future of the French far right

Next year, the National Front will elect a new leader who will decide whether the party moves into the mainstream or remains extremist and marginal

The jolly, slightly bumbling man with a shock of white hair was once, briefly, the most senior far-right politician in Europe. On a filthy night in Metz in eastern France, he is addressing a restaurant filled with French patriots, aged from 80 to four. He comes over as a mixture of a Euro MP and a university professor (both of which he is) and an earnest small-town mayor (which he is not).

His name is Bruno Gollnisch. You have probably never heard of him, even though he was once, for 10 months in 2007, the president of a far-right group in the European Parliament which included some of the most extreme and aggressive nationalists in the EU. For many years, Mr Gollnisch, 60, has been the loyal number two to a man that much of the world has heard of, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder and president of the National Front, the French far-right party.

Mr Le Pen, 82, retires in January. Mr Gollnisch believes that it is now his turn to rule one of the most successful – and feared – ultra-nationalist movements in Europe. But there is someone in his way, Mr Le Pen's daughter Marine, 42.

The internal campaign to succeed Mr Le Pen will end in January with a vote of the 75,000 party members before a conference in Tours. In recent days, the campaign has become very nasty indeed. The kind of poisonous paranoia that the NF usually directs at the rest of the world (especially immigrants and mainstream politicians) has been turned inwards, against the party's would-be leaders. Or rather mostly against one would-be leader: Marine Le Pen.

In some far-right newspapers and on ultra-Catholic websites, Ms Le Pen, has been branded a "hussy outside religion and the law" and a "spineless" woman surrounded by "unscrupulous opportunists, Jews and perverts". She has been accused by the editor of one ultra-right magazine, Rivarol, of having "adopted the two official religions of the Fifth Republic, abortion and the Holocaust".

Ms Le Pen, a pro-abortion, twice divorced, mother-of-three, is accused by the ultra-Catholic website e-Deo of surrendering to the "evil one". What is more, e-Deo says, she is a "feminist" and "invariably" wears jeans.

Why such hatred? Marine Le Pen promises that she can take the NF to a new level. By abandoning her father's provocations and obsession with the past, by adopting a more modern and moderate image, and ditching some socially conservative positions, she believes that the NF can move beyond its powerful, baleful presence on the margins of French politics. It can win and rule.

That appeals to many people. Marine is widely tipped to win the party leadership in January. The opinion polls suggest she would take votes from President Nicolas Sarkozy and come third in the first round of the presidential election in 2012.

To others in the party, all talk of broadening and modernising the movement sounds like heresy. Their badge of identity and pride is that they are permanent outsiders and, at the same time, the only true insiders, standing firm against the racio-cultural menaces facing France, Christianity and the West.

Mr Gollnisch, at his campaign meeting in Metz, distances himself from the vicious personal attacks on his rival. No one accuses him of fomenting or approving the demonising of Marine (which may not help him much in any case). Marine Le Pen does, however, accuse him of reaching out to "zozos", "provocateurs" and "anachronistic groups" who will lead the NF into an "endless tunnel of "demonisation".

On the contrary, says Mr Gollnisch, he is the only man who can bring together the big happy family of the French far right.

In Metz his speech is mostly about the past, pushing one by one the hot buttons of racial and nationalist resentment: the "betrayal" of French settlers in Algeria in the early 1960s; the "lies" about French "shame" in World War Two; the misunderstood, civilising glories of the vanished, French global empire.

He also refers to what he sees as the twin fountainheads of Frenchness: Clovis (the blonde, fifth-century uniter of Frankish tribes) and Rome (the mother of Catholicsm). At every hot-button reference, the hundred or so Gollnisch supporters, including the four year olds, applaud loudly.

Mr Gollnisch also pays tribute to his "noble" far-right allies in the European parliament, including the British National Party and the "courageous" Nick Griffin. Marine Le Pen, in an interview with The Independent in September, distanced herself from the BNP. Her mission is, in a sense, to turn the National Front into a kind of Gallic Ukip – a nationalist party that can penetrate the middle classes and the mainstream.

Talking to The Independent after his speech, Mr Gollnisch made no apology for praising Mr Griffin. "We stress the ethnic question less than the BNP but our approaches are otherwise much the same," he said.

"Nick Griffin is a charming man, a courageous man, a very intelligent man. I am a great admirer of Nick Griffin. If Marine Le Pen wishes to distance the Front National from Nick Griffin and the BNP, then that shows the difference between Marine and myself..."

It is probably wrong, or over-simple, to see Mr Gollnish as the "hardliner" and Marine Le Pen as a "moderate" but his enemies, inside and outside the party, point to his friendly relations with unashamedly xenophobic, anti-Semitic and racist figures and groups. Mr Gollnisch is a professor of Japanese and oriental culture and he is married to a Japanese woman. Is he also a racist?

"When Algerians were murdering French people in the 1950s because they didn't want the French in Algeria, we were told that was normal," he said. "When I say that there are too many Algerians in France, I am branded a racist and a xenophobe.

"Xenophobia is normal. It is a common attitude all over the world. People are wary of foreigners. They are scared of threats to their culture and way of life. That doesn't make them racist, in the sense that they believe that one race is superior. I have spent my whole life studying other cultures. My wife is Japanese. But I believe that the French people, French traditions, French culture should be dominant in France."

Jean-Marie Le Pen is supporting his daughter. The party machine is clearly on Marine's side. On the NF website, you find a half-dozen large pictures of Marine before you find one small one of Mr Gollnisch. His supporters are being hounded out of party positions. Isn't this a rather "Third World" election?

Mr Gollnish does not disagree. "Yes, you are right, there is a disparity. There is gap in the way that I am treated and the way that Marine is treated." He shrugs. What worries him more, he says, is the disparity in coverage by the French mainstream media. He is confident, all the same, that he can overcome these handicaps and win in January.

"The numbers of people coming to my meetings, the fervour there, the number of applications for party membership from people that we know support me... Events are moving my way. I think there is a growing anxiety in the other camp."

But what of the other people in the restaurant? What do they have against Marine, who is, after all, her father's daughter, and the publicly anointed choice of the man who created the NF and led it for almost 40 years? It rapidly emerges that Marine's unsurmountable handicap for some NF traditionalists is that she is her father's daughter, not his son.

A young man with razor-short hair, who declined to give his name, said: "What we need is a man. Un homme de poigne." (Literally a man with a firm grip.)

A group of other young men – short-hair, smartly dressed, severe faces, but, on the whole, friendly – try to explain why they dislike Marine. They do not repeat the ultra-extreme views expressed in Rivarol or on some far-right websites – at least not in public – but their contempt for Marine is clear.

Pierre Jeannot, 30, an accountant, said: "I left the NF because, under Marine's influence, it has been getting too soft. If Gollnisch wins, I will rejoin. Marine wants to water down the party. She wants to make it acceptable, politically correct. But what is the point of that? We want a party that will be a trades union for the white French – for the French of French origin."

William Schmidt, 27, a bank worker, said: "We are far right and we want a party that is not afraid of being called far right. We want a party that is not afraid of being called racist just because it tells the truth. Marine wants to clean up the party's image. Why? We warned years ago what mass immigration would do to France. Now everyone sees that we were right. Why should we apologise?"

André Collin, 69, a retired lorry driver from near Metz, has been involved in far-right politics since, as a soldier in Algéria, he felt betrayed by Charles de Gaulle's decision to abandon "l'Algérie Française" in 1962.

"I have yet to decide how I will vote," he said. "Marine presents a more modern face for the television. But is that what we need? I want someone with experience, with integrity, someone who will stand by what we have always represented: the only party which stands up for the real interests of French people."

A senior NF renegade once described the party as "a coalition of losers". It was he said, a loose – and mutually detesting – constellation of various tribes who feel rejected or defeated by the modern world: the Vichy sympathisers; the ex-Algerian colonists; the fundamentalist Catholics; the royalists; the diehard anti-Europeans.

Floating around, and in and out, of the party, there are also several, more bizarre, or disturbing, tribes: pagan white supremacists, neo-Nazis, diehard anti-Semites. Overall, the spectrum of the NF stretches, in British terms, from the right-wing of the Conservative Party to beyond the BNP.

Only the charisma and personality of Jean-Marie Le Pen has held the party together for so long. Pieces have been dropping off for several years now (which Mr Gollnisch promises to sew back on).

Marine Le Pen pledges to turn the NF into a winning party. The people in the restaurant in Metz seemed to prefer to remain losers, unsullied by moderate or mainstream approval.

Everything suggests that Marine Le Pen will win in January. She may go on to make a high score in the first round of the presidential election in 2012, weakening President Sarkozy's chance of re-election. In the longer term, even in the medium term, it may be difficult for her to prevent the family business from falling apart.

Le Pen Family fortunes

* Marine Le Pen – if she wins the National Front party leadership – is predicted to take up to 14 per cent of the vote in the first round of the French presidential elections in 2012. This is a much stronger showing than the equivalent position of her father, Jean-Marie, 18 months before the election of 2002: an election in which he shocked the world by taking second place and reaching the second round run-off with 16.86 per cent of the vote.

Since then the NF score in national elections has slumped. So have its finances, dependent partly on national subsidies based on election results. In the 2004 European elections, the NF scored only 9.8 per cent. In the 2007 presidential election – won by Nicolas Sarkozy – Mr Le Pen attracted only 10.4 per cent in the first round, his worst result since 1988.

In the 2009 European elections the NF took just 6.34 per cent of the vote. In the first round of the French regional elections earlier this year the party, fighting on a more moderate platform largely shaped by Marine Le Pen, was back up to 11.42 per cent of the nationwide vote in the first round.

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