Le Pen's personal strategy puts Front candidates at risk

Snap election is exposing bitter divide in far-right. John Lichfield reports from Paris

Jean Marie Le Pen has been playing his favourite role in the the French parliamentary election campaign: the loose cannon.

On this occasion, however, his substantial and unpredictable bulk menaces several of the candidates best placed to win seats for his own far-right National Front (FN).

Mr Le Pen has been going around singing the praises of the Socialist leader, Lionel Jospin, and urging FN voters, at all costs, not to re-elect the present centre-right government over the next two weekends.

Sound long-term strategy to sow confusion in the French political system? Maybe, but Mr Le Pen has also sown confusion in his own ranks. As many as 15 FN candidates hope to qualify for the second round in straight contests with Socialist or Communist opponents. They have been infuriated by Mr Le Pen's comments, which could cost them the few hundred votes that may be the margin between success and failure on the second weekend of voting.

With two days to the first round, here is one of the many paradoxes of an extremely odd French election. The National Front is in unprecedented public disarray: Mr Le Pen's comments have been disavowed by several leading FN figures. And yet the disillusion of the electorate is so profound that the ultra-right party may still score well enough on Sunday to hold the key to the outcome of the second round on 1 June. The final published opinion polls forecast the FN score as a comparatively static 13-15 per cent but pollsters tend to under-count the far-right vote. Anecdotal evidence from around the country suggests that it may be higher.

The number of "triangular" contests in the second round, involving the left, centre-right and FN, and the pattern of transfers of FN votes in other constituencies, will largely decide the outcome of the election. The arithmetic is mind-twisting but French psephologists believe an FN first-round score in the region of 17 per cent will severely damage the government's chances of re-election.

What the snap election has revealed, as the government had hoped, is the bitterness of the internal rivalries within the National Front. For only the second time in a political career spanning 40 years, Mr Le Pen is not standing in any constituency. He is the only party leader to refuse to face the electorate.

He chose not to run, according to Front insiders and Front watchers, because of his growing obsession with, and hatred for, his de facto number two, Bruno Megret. Mr Megret is widely expected to win in Vitrolles, the constituency he has nursed near Marseilles, where his wife, Catherine, was elected mayor in February. Mr Le Pen could find no constituency which offered the same chances of success. He decided not to run, rather than fail in Mr Megret's moment of triumph.

The dozen or more constituencies which may be decided by a run-off between the National Front and the left include Mr Megret's in Vitrolles (which is not going as well for the NF as expected). But other campaigns potentially damaged by Mr Le Pen's comments include those of his own loyalists, including the strong challenge in Toulon of Jean-Marie Le Chavallier, the FN mayor of the city.

"Le Pen's comments are a stab in the back," one FN candidate told the investigative newspaper Le Canard Enchaine. "There will be a settling of scores after the election."

Why did Mr Le Pen do It? It could be argued that it would serve the FN best if France were plunged into a muddled period of co-habitation between a centre-right president and a majority left-wing parliament and government. But it would also serve the party quite well to have a half-dozen members in the national assembly. The suspicion within FN ranks is that Mr Le Pen detested the idea of such a parliamentary group, led by Mr Megret, which might progressively marginalise him.

Mr Le Pen is a keen yachtsman. One observer of the FN said he was behaving like a sailor: "To avoid being demasted, he's reducing sail."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
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

Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

How to find gold

Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

Not born in the USA

Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
10 best balsamic vinegars

10 best balsamic vinegars

Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy