Le Pen cries foul as Front foes unite

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Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of France's far-right National Front, accused the political establishment yesterday of trying to drum him out of public life after the major parties of right and left combined forces to prevent Front victories in two by-elections. With Socialist and Communist support, candidates from the governing centre-right coalition saw off National Front challenges last weekend in the southern city of Toulon and in Chaville, west of Paris.

Mr Le Pen, who took 15 per cent of the vote in last year's presidential election but whose party has no seats in the National Assembly, reacted with characteristic venom. "What are they going to do to me? Gas me? Assassinate me? Machine-gun me? What can they do to force people to vote for the Gang of Four?" he asked, referring to the four main parties of left and right.

The Front's defeat in Toulon was bitter for Mr Le Pen, as his party controls the town hall there. Its candidate, Gerard Bauer, had a 12 percentage- point lead in the first round of voting, but after the major parties united behind the government candidate, Philippe Vitel, Mr Bauer lost in the second round by 54 to 46 per cent.

The results illustrated the effectiveness of using "republican front" tactics to shut out the National Front. The term denotes a coalition of mainstream parties uniting in defence of the French Republic and democratic values against extremist threats.

Still, the National Front is far from finished. It performed better in Toulon and Chaville than in previous elections, and in another vote in Nice, a Front candidate topped the poll with 28.8 per cent in the first round.

The Gaullist-led government is, therefore, considering legal measures to silence the National Front. The Justice Minister, Jacques Toubon, has proposed to tighten anti-racism laws by punishing the circulation of "racist or xenophobic messages", including those of a general nature.

At present, the laws covering incitement of hatred apply only if the offender has named a specific race, nation or religion. Mr Toubon says this makes Mr Le Pen invulnerable to prosecution, even when he commented that racial inequality was "obvious" and "a fact".

Civil liberties groups said the proposed legislation was too vaguely phrased and could have the unintended effect of curbing freedom of speech. Charles Pasqua, the right-wing former interior minister, warned that to prosecute Mr Le Pen would merely increase his poll ratings.

The Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, described Mr Le Pen as "deeply, almost viscerally racist, anti-Semitc and xenophobic". This prompted Mr Le Pen to denounce the Prime Minister as "a criminal against humanity" and to demand his resignation.