Le Pen leaves door open to election role

There was a notable absentee from the impressively long list of National Front candidates for the French election presented by Jean-Marie Le Pen yesterday. The absentee was Le Chef, or Le Bete (the beast) as he likes to call himself, Jean-Marie Le Pen himself.

The leader of the far-right FN said that he might still run in the snap parliamentary election called for 25 May and 1 June. He would make the announcement when "the time was right".

Le Pen boasted that, if requested to do so, the "quasi-totality" of the FN candidates would be "delighted" to stand down and surrender their constituencies for him. The "quasi-totality", please note, not the totality.

There are two reasons for Mr Le Pen's unaccustomed shyness. First, he knows that the other parties will mobilise all their heaviest weaponry against him as soon as they know where he is standing.

Second, Mr Le Pen is reluctant to stand at all. His closest advisers have warned him that it would be seriously damaging if he ran and lost, while his de facto Number Two, the rising power in the FN, Bruno Megret ran and won.

Mr Megret, as expected, will be the FN candidate in Vitrolles-Marignane, the constituency north of Marseilles which included the town where his wife, Catherine, won a pivotal mayoral election in February. This seat, nurtured by Mr Megret for years, is the one near-certain FN gain in next month's election. Mr Megret, it can be assumed, is the one FN candidate who would not be delighted to give up his seat to his boss.

A simultaneous Megret victory and a Le Pen defeat in the parliamentary election would be a desperate blow to the amour propre of Le Bete. It would also consolidate Mr Megret's claim to be the future leader of the party - the man capable of making the FN respectable to wavering voters who dislike the vulgarity and intermittently overt extremism of Le Pen.

The FN leader's difficulties point to the continuing electoral and strategic weaknesses of Lepenism, despite the victory in Vitrolles and its colonisation of a large part of the French working class.

The Front is running at about 13 to 15 per cent in opinion polls: this would be a historical high for the FN in a parliamentary election.

It would be enough to put over 100 (Mr Le Pen predicts 200) FN candidates into the second round of voting on 1 June. It would bring about scores of awkward three-way second round contests, which might prevent the centre- right parties now in government from achieving another majority.

But, unless the polls are substantially undercounting FN support, as they sometimes do, it would not give Le Pen more than a couple of seats. Le Chef said yesterday that his target was 10 seats. Political analysts say he will be lucky to gain more than one: Mr Megret's in Vitrolles.

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