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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Digital Marketing Executive

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A luxury beauty house with a nu...

Recruitment Genius: Housekeepers - Immediate Start

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This company are currently recruiting new exp...

Recruitment Genius: Head Concierge

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning Property Man...

Recruitment Genius: Content, SEO and PPC Executive

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Day In a Page

On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral