Far right holds aces in Alsace

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The Independent Online

in Metz

The eastern regions of Alsace and Lorraine, a focal point of Franco- German rivalry for centuries, are the stage for a different, but none the less bitter, contest in Sunday's presidential election.

Jacques Chirac and Lionel Jospin are vying for far-right votes in an area which, to the consternation of most regional politicians, gave substantial support to the National Front leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in the first round on 23 April.

If history is any guide, it is Mr Chirac, the candidate of the Gaullist right, who should capture Alsace and Lorraine. Traditional strongholds of conservative Catholicism, they have voted for the right even in moments of great national triumph for the left, such as the 1936 victory of the Popular Front.

But the two largest cities in Alsace, Strasbourg and Mulhouse, have Socialist mayors, and the Le Pen factor makes predictions hazardous. Disenchanted with classic conservative politics and swayed perhaps by Mr Le Pen's denunciation of Mr Chirac on Monday as the embodiment of "the worst of Jospin", many extreme-right voters could simply refuse to cast a ballot. Mr Le Pen yesterday said he would cast a blank ballot.

Mr Le Pen scored 25.4 per cent in Alsace in the first round, 10 per cent above his national average and ahead of all other eight candidates. He took 26.7 per cent in Mulhouse, 20 per cent in Strasbourg and 21.1 per cent in Metz, capital of Lorraine. Commentators attribute his success partly to the special identity of an area that was annexed by Germany in 1871, returned to France in 1918, seized by the Nazis in 1940, and retaken by France in 1944.

Mr Chirac's post first-round emphasis on immigration may appeal to Le Pen voters in Mulhouse, where Turks, East Europeans and other foreigners from non-European Union countries make up about one-fifth of the population, and where three mosques now grace the skyline. But one curious fact is that Mr Le Pen performed strongly even in rural areas of Alsace where there is no obvious immigration problem.

In the commune of Eschentzwiller outside Mulhouse, which has a population of 1,127 and only two families from abroad (and those from the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe), Mr Le Pen came first on 23 April. It would seem that many voters have fallen for a certain myth about immigration and have lost their long-standing loyalties to the traditional right.

Much of Mr Le Pen's national vote came from the unemployed and white workers threatened by economic modernisation. But in Alsace, many people cross daily to work in Switzerland and Germany, and unemployment is well below the national average of 12.2 per cent, suggesting that other factors are behind the far right's regional strength.

Pascal Perrineau, an academic who studies the extreme right, said that Mr Chirac is better placed than Mr Jospin to exploit the notion beloved of Le Pen voters that unemployment, Aids, drug abuse and crime are all somehow caused by immigration. But he added: "There is a real problem with Le Pen supporters. Many will take refuge in abstention, and will doubtless choose Jospin."

In France as a whole, these will almost certainly include former Communist voters who have switched in the past decade to the National Front. But Alsace and Lorraine are not exactly known for their Communist heritage, and the odds must favour a regional victory for Mr Chirac.

Still, these are embarrassing times in France's eastern borderlands. The area which symbolises the burial of Franco-German hatreds and is home to the European Parliament and the Council of Europe, promoter of human rights across the continent, is suddenly famous for quite different reasons. Whether Gaullist or Socialist, the winners next Sunday will not be entirely comfortable in their celebrations.