France's far-right rejoices in `banal' victory

The ultra-right Front National captured its fourth French town hall, in Vitrolles, at the weekend with a promise to run the town for the French, and not for foreigners. Catherine Megret, the victorious candidate, also promised to run things more cheaply and more efficiently than the Socialists; and to govern according to local needs, not national dogma.

Oddly, her first act as mayor will be to return to her suburban home outside Paris and hand over the government of Vitrolles to obscure, local National Front politicians and officials. Mrs Megret, who was running on behalf of her disqualified husband, made it clear from the beginning that she wanted to be elected mayor, but not to be mayor. Bruno Megret, second in command of the party nationwide, has no more interest than his wife in running Vitrolles, a failed experiment in concrete urbanism on the outskirts of Marseilles. It will be left to a cabal of local FN supporters to govern the place: presumably following the example set by the three Front mayors elected in nearby towns in 1995.

The Front's municipal strategy, according to the party's chief ideologist - none other than Bruno Megret - is to "banalise" the party's anti-immigrant, anti-establishment message: in other words to extend the FN's base by convincing voters that it is just another party, capable of running town halls more efficiently than the other parties.

So what is the FN's record in its other seats of power - Toulon, Orange and Marignane? Town government has not collapsed, as perhaps the Front's opponents might have wished. There has been no wholesale persecution of immigrants. There has been no obvious gain in municipal efficiency either.

What there has been is a mixture of racist pettiness, political vindictiveness and censorship, mixed with the kind of cronyism which is rife throughout French local government. FN opponents - and some non-political locals - also complain of a rising mood of racial and political intolerance, which they blame on the example set from the town hall.

In Marignane, next door to Vitrolles, the FN mayor, Daniel Simonpieri, claims to have cut taxes and spending. A local apolitical taxpayers' group points out that taxes may have fallen by a few centimes but spending has, rather mysteriously, risen. One of the mayor's first acts was to abolish the special, pork-free school lunch menus which had previously been provided for Muslim and Jewish pupils. It is this kind of in-your-face racial insensitivity which gives the lie to the FN's claim that it is not a racist party. (The official Front line is that it supports the rights of French people of all races over immigrants of all races.)

In both Marignane and Orange, 60 miles to the north in the Rhone valley, the FN-controlled town halls have ordered - in the name of "ideological rebalancing" - local libraries to stock far-right newspapers, periodicals and books, and to cancel subscriptions to allegedly ultra-leftist newspapers. These include Liberation which is only just left of centre, and a leftist but respectable regional newspaper, La Marseillaise.

In Orange, three out five social centres - those serving immigrant areas - have been closed. Town-hall employees have complained of an "atmosphere of humiliation, persecution and menace" directed against anyone who overtly resists the FN line.

In Toulon, the naval port east of Marseilles, and the largest city under FN control, the party record of day-to-day management is poor. Local taxes have risen, despite the slashing of cultural and sporting budgets. The town's traditional Christmas distribution of toys to poor children was switched last year to a new organisation, which gave presents to "French children only". The mayor, Jean-Marie le Chevallier, described as "unfortunate" the invitation of a Jewish writer, Marek Halter, to the Toulon book festival.

Overall, the very fact that the FN is running towns may, as Mr Megret hopes, "banalise" the party. But its record fails utterly to support its claim to be a respectable, pro-French but non-racist democratic movement.