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."

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