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.

Arts and Entertainment
The first film introduced Daniel Radcliffe to our screens, pictured here as he prepares to board the train to Hogwarts for the first time.
booksHow reading Harry Potter helps children grow up to be gay-friendly
Sport
Frank Lampard will pass Billy Wright and equal Bobby Charton’s caps tally of 106 caps against
sportFormer Chelsea midfielder in Etihad stopgap before New York contract
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Aladdin is performed at the Tony Awards in New York in June
theatreBrit producer Lythgoe makes kids' musical comedy a Los Angeles hit
Sport
Usain Bolt of Jamaica smiles and shakes hands with a competitor after Jamaica won their first heat in the men's 4x100m relay
sport
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
filmBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleBenidorm actor was just 68
Arts and Entertainment
Preparations begin for Edinburgh Festival 2014
Edinburgh festivalAll the best shows to see at Edinburgh this year
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

(Senior) IT Support Engineer - 1st-3rd Line Support

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful IT service provider that has bee...

Wind Farm Civil Design Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principal Marine Mechanical Engineer

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principle Geotechnical Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices