National Front surges in French poll

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The French far right has bounced back from a damaging split four years ago, to the consternation of its many enemies, and is on course to win almost 16 per cent of the vote in the first round of presidential elections on Sunday.

Latest polls show the National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen attracting as much as 14 per cent. Support for his former deputy and author of the 1998 schism, Bruno Mégret, who advocates an unashamedly racist and anti-immigration platform, is running at between 2 and 2.5 per cent. A total of 16 per cent would represent a remarkable comeback.

In the European elections three years ago, the two achieved barely 9 per cent between them. The new poll figures gave Mr Le Pen an unexpected boost on the eve of his final campaign rally in Paris tonight, a rally that will probably also herald the end of his presidential ambitions. Although still bursting with energy at 73, he is visibly ageing and unlikely to stand again.

In Marseille this week, before a doting southern audience, he bade his real farewell – and made his last, fighting, stand. The poor outer suburbs of Marseille have been a bedrock of National Front support over the years, and on Tuesday night Mr Le Pen did them proud.

His convoy, with outriders, cut a screeching swath through the blocked rush-hour traffic of inner Marseille. Mobbed by dark-suited protégés on arrival, he was serenaded into the hall by a cabaret singer, who led a calypso chorus: "With Jean-Marie/we are carefree..."

An ecstatic audience lit sparklers and chanted "Le Pen – President", to produce the nearest thing they could to a torchlight procession without leaving their seats. Four huge "eternal flames" on the podium changed from orange to National Front yellow and he launched into a 75-minute performance – part-lecture, part-tirade and part-stand-up comedy routine, with some vicious mimicry of his rivals.

The main target was President Jacques Chirac. "To see a prime minister of the left behaving like a man of the left was unfortunate," he said of the Socialist, Lionel Jospin, "but nothing out of the ordinary." But "to watch a President of the right behaving like a man of the left, was nothing short of betrayal." But Mr Le Pen also dissociated himself from the "xenophobia" of his further-right rival.

Attacking Mr Chirac and Mr Mégret is a political tightrope that Mr Le Pen has had to walk throughout this campaign. "People ask what I stand for?" he has taken to asking rhetorically. And he answers with just a flick of the old race card: "On social policy, I'm on the right; on economic policy, I'm on the left; on nationality issues, I'm French." A storm of applause is assured.

The rebound of the far right has shocked the mainstream parties and now worries them as much as the fragmentation of the rest of the vote. In their "nightmare" scenario, a united National Front (or far-right party) candidate could squeeze into the two-person run-off for the Presidency.

This would happen only if Mr Le Pen could overtake one or other candidate in the first round, but with some polls giving Mr Jospin as little as 17 per cent and Mr Chirac 18.5 per cent, nothing can be excluded.

In practice, this would only guarantee a landslide victory for Mr Le Pen's second-round opponent (of whichever party). But it would raise once again a question that has eaten at Mr Le Pen and his supporters for more than 20 years. How come a party that speaks for so many has not been invited to join a government of the right?

Mr Le Pen blames Jacques Chirac. If only, he says, Mr Chirac had allied the Gaullists with the National Front, they could have defeated François Mitterrand in 1988. Instead, he says bitterly, the then-Gaullist leader preferred to cede power to the left.