Le Pen warns prefects to lay off the Front

French right-wing leader warns of possible conflicts in cities and towns run by National Front
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The leader of France's extreme right National Front, Jean-Marie Le Pen, warned yesterday of possible conflict between the three local authorities now run by the National Front and the Paris-appointed prefects in those regions.

He also ridiculed those politicians and cultural figures - mainly Socialist - who had called for a boycott of cities with extreme-right councils, saying the Socialists were not in power now and had no business ``organising people to throw stones at the National Front''.

Speaking at a press conference at his headquarters at St Cloud on the outskirts of Paris, with the three new National Front mayors - of Toulon, Orange and Marignane - on the platform beside him, Mr Le Pen insisted that both he and they had full respect for the law. But, he said, ``the priority currently given to foreigners in housing and social provision is against the law''.

The National Front's policy of giving priority to French nationals - they call it exercising a ``national preference'' and deny that it has anything to do with racial origin or colour - is one of the most sensitive aspects of their programme and the one on which the new mayors would be most likely to clash with the prefects.

French law contains strict equality and anti-discrimination provisions and the prefects could intervene if they believed these were being flouted.

Eric Roualt, one of the new French ministers dealing with urban problems, seemed to confirm Mr Le Pen's suspicions yesterday, saying: "If the new mayors refuse to operate the law, there are the prefects. We would be prepared to replace the mayors."

Individually, France's first three National Front mayors - the most senior is Jean-Marie Le Chevallier, elected in the naval city of Toulon - took care to stress that they would abide by the law and regarded themselves as responsible to all their citizens.

Mr Le Chevallier in particular seemed embarrassed by Mr Le Pen's bombast, which went much further than he had ventured in his campaign manifesto.

Elsewhere, the argument continued to rage about the best way of countering the rise of the extreme right.

A number of politicians, mainly but not only from the mainstream right, came out against the idea of a cultural or sporting boycott because, they said, the resulting isolation might only make the National Front cities more militant. Michel Barnier, the minister for European affairs, said people had to be shown that the Front's ideas - especially its intolerance - were "bad ideas".

Perhaps the most controversial contribution came from the sociologist, Emmanuel Todd, one of the people who encouraged Jacques Chirac to make combating social divisions a principal theme of his election campaign.

In an interview for the left-of-centre newspaper, Liberation, Mr Todd said that the Front thrived on ``the indifference of the elites to the idea of nationhood''. Therefore, he argued, the best way to stem the growth of the National Front was to decree that ``building a united Europe is at an end''.

If you want to guarantee the National Front further victories, especially in the Paris region, Mr Todd went on, ``you have only to apply the Brussels proposals on opening up the public services to outside competition ... And I can't even begin to imagine what the Front would score after the introduction of a single currency".