French show of fury lets Front play the martyr

Protests against Le Pen's congress may actually help him, writes John Lichfield in Paris

All the difficulties and repeated mistakes of the French establishment in dealing with the extreme-right Front National are likely to be played out on the streets of Strasbourg this weekend.

The FN, fresh from its pivotal mayoral victory in Vitrolles, is holding a national conference, at which some of its own ugliness and internal tensions might have been expected to be on display.

Instead, attention is likely to focus on the huge anti-Front demonstrations planned in the Alsatian city, which, on past experience, may end in violent confrontations between the more militant anti-Frontistes and the riot police.

The Front leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen will be able, and is already preparing, to present himself in his favoured role of victim. In an interview with Le Figaro yesterday, he said that it was dangerous to democracy that a "large political organisation", commanding the votes of up to 15 per cent of the French electorate, was not permitted to conduct a legal gathering in peace.

Up to 30,000 demonstrators are expected from all over France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland. The political establishment risks looking all the more ridiculous because there will not be one but two anti-Front demonstrations, a big one supported by the left and a smaller one organised by the centre- right. Amid the brouhaha, there may be little focus on events at the three- day Easter conference itself where, behind a facade of unity, the FN is facing awkward tactical decisions and the beginnings of an internal power struggle.

The Strasbourg conference exemplifies the problems of the French democratic establishment in dealing with an outwardly democratic party which espouses ultimately undemocratic ideas. When the Front has been ignored in the last 15 years, its influence, unopposed, has tended to grow.

When the centre right has cooperated with the FN, hoping to take over part of its support, the opposite has happened and Frontiste influence has tended to grow. When the Front has been stridently opposed by both left and right, its preoccupations with race and national identity have been placed at centre stage and its influence has tended to grow.

Long-term adversaries and students of Front strategy say the best method of containing this advance, which is disturbing but not as powerful as is imagined, is systematically and laboriously to fight FN ideas and activism at the most basic, grass-roots, political level.

While the other French parties have suffered from the withering of political participation, seen in many democratic countries in recent years, the Front has been busy building a network of local and special-interest organisations. (There are now FN trades unions, FN youth groups and 32 FN single-issue fronts for everything from animal rights to old people).

Catherine Trautmann, the Socialist mayor of Strasbourg, has had some success in checking the FN in her city by counter-activity at street level. But it was she who called on anti-FN forces to come to the city this weekend to mount the kind of public protests which are emotionally satisfying but which can be counter-productive.

The Front National has a similar conference every three years without attracting such large demonstrations. Temperatures have been raised on this occasion by several factors.

First, the FN victory in the mayoral election in Vitrolles, near Marseilles, last month, brought the number of far-right-controlled towns in France to four. Vitrolles was the first time the FN had scored an outright majority in normal conditions against all other parties.

Second, the stakes were further raised last month by the intellectual- and artist-led campaign against a new law to control illegal immigration, which was held by the "cultural left" to be an example of the creeping "Le-Pennisation" of French politics.

Thirdly, a modest to powerful FN showing of 15 to 17 per cent could be enough to give Mr Le Pen a block of MPs in the parliamentary elections next March and offer him new opportunities to disrupt mainstream politics.

Fourthly, there is a convergence of factors which tend to help the FN's cause: the high rate of unemployment; the acute French fear of globalisation; the undercurrent of fear of Europe and the Euro; and the drip-drip of financial scandal in all the other parties, except the Communists.

These are reasons enough to fear the potential strength of the FN. But it is also important to dwell on the Front's weaknesses. Jean-Marie Le Pen is the most widely feared and detested politician in France, topping all political unpopularity contests (79 per cent "negatives" in one recent poll). In all tests of opinion, an overwhelming majority of French people - at least 65 per cent, depending on the question - say they would never vote for the Front. (Against that, 30 per cent have already done so at one time or another).

Victory in Vitrolles was an important watershed for the FN. But it has brought its own problems. Even though his wife's name was on the ballot paper, Vitrolles was a de facto victory for Bruno Megret, the de facto Number Two of the Front National. Mr Megret, 48 next week, expects to be the FN's presidential candidate in 2002. So does Mr Le Pen, who is 70 next year. In his Figaro interview yesterday, Mr Le Pen brusquely rejected the suggestion that it was time to prepare his succession. "Why? Do you think I'm too old. I am not as old as Deng Xiaoping," he said.

Since Vitrolles, relations between Mr Le Pen and Mr Megret, difficult for several years, have been chilly, according to sources within the party. Mr Le Pen resents the fact that, for the first time, there is a power base within the party that is independent of "Le Chef".

More galling still, Mr Megret is the most likely FN candidate to win a parliamentary seat next year (in Vitrolles and the neighbouring town). Mr Le Pen has not nursed a constituency and knows he will face carpet- bombing by the establishment wherever he plants his flag. A vain man, he hates the idea that Mr Megret might win while he loses. He also hates the idea of not running at all and leaving Mr Megret as the FN leader in parliament.

The conference might give some clue to his intentions. But in the face of the challenge on the streets outside, whether peaceful or violent, the FN will be determined to put on a show of unity.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Technician - 1st Line

£19000 - £21000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPOR...

Special Needs Teaching Assistant

£50 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Special Educational Needs Teach...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant Birmingham

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Comission: SThree: The SThree group is a world lea...

Year 3 Teacher

£100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: KS2 TeacherWould you like ...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London