French think again on Front

Local election results will leave few mayors sleeping easily
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The Independent Online


Between attending the Bordeaux wine fair and meeting his Japanese counterpart in Paris, the French Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, became one of the first of the ruling Gaullists to comment on Sunday's local elections. They had brought, ''many surprises, a great deal of change - in all senses of the word''.

This was a careful understatement. For while most of the attention went to the National Front's victory in the 170,000 strong naval city of Toulon - the first time the extreme right has gained control of a city of any size in France - and its other two victories in the south-east, there was a startling trend in all Sunday's results that will leave few mayors sleeping easily.

The constant feature of a thoroughly mixed picture was the discontent of many electorates with long established local councils and known political figures and their determination to vote - or keep - them out. This was an extension of the trend observed in the first round of voting, where mayors regarded as good administrators and local ambassadors were generally returned. In the second round, those who failed that test were voted out.

One of the most striking results was in Paris, where Jean Tiberi, long a deputy to Jacques Chirac as mayor, has held the mayor's post for barely four weeks. This was enough for him to lose six of the city's 20 districts.

The reasons were local and specific. Mr Tiberi is perceived as a weak leader. He is also blamed by association for a scandal in which a journalist was able to ''buy'' the right to rent a new council flat in central Paris. His reputation was further tarnished when the satirical weekly Canard Enchaine claimed that his two adult children were living in council-owned property in Paris - and letting out the flats they owned at the highest market rent.

The Gaullists yesterday glossed over their problems in Paris - where Mr Tiberi remains mayor, but is greatly weakened - preferring to note that they had won overall control of more city councils than they had lost. The cities they won, however, like the ones gained by the Socialists, were places where the previous administration was deemed either to have performed poorly or to have been corrupt.

Grenoble, where the former Gaullist minister, Alain Carignon, is soon to go on trial for corruption, went to the Socialists, while it took Raymond Barre and days of horse-trading to retain Lyons for the right.

Nimes, where the socialist mayor was also involved in a corruption scandal, was won by the Communists, but they in turn lost one of their strongholds, Le Havre, to the Gaullists after an unexpectedly strong performance by the National Front in the first round.

The National Front's performance was also more patchy and, in several places, considerably weaker than in the first round. Partly this was because of a determined effort against the Front in those cities of more than 30,000 people where they appeared close to winning.

Dreux, west of Paris, and Vitrolles, north of Marseilles, were bombarded with anti-Front literature and visited by mainstream dignitaries who warned of the risks in electing the extreme right.

The three cities won by the National Front - Marignane, a glorified suburb of Marseilles, Orange and Toulon - were not given that high-profile treatment by the other parties.

One member of the incoming National Front council in Toulon, however, was keen to stress Toulon's historical and demographic distinctiveness in explaining why the Front won there - and why it was unlikely to set a trend for other cities.

Toulon, he said, had always been a rebel town. It also had an unusual mix: a predominantly working-class population, a large immigrant population, high unemployment, endemic corruption, but also the dominating presence of the navy.

This added the crucial patriotic and nationalistic element that may have swung Toulon to the extreme right rather than the extreme left.