Liberal France vents anger at Le Pen

The Jewish woman - in her fifties, immaculately dressed - emerged from her synagogue at 7pm on Saturday to find the Avenue de la Paix littered with tear-gas canisters, broken bottles and smashed paving stones.

She stared for a moment along the deserted avenue at the massed ranks of the CRS riot police. "Quelle bande de salauds [what a bunch of bastards]", she said. She glanced the other way at the group of 500 French and German anarchists who had just been repulsed by the CRS, smashing windows as they fled. "Quel espece de voyous, [what a bunch of hooligans]," she muttered. Then she recalled, with a wail, that her son, David, had been taking part in the large, anti-National Front demonstration in Strasbourg that afternoon. "If he's been hurt, I'll throw a bomb at that bastard Le Pen myself," she announced, and stumped off home through the broken glass.

A plague on almost all your houses was an apt summary of much of what happened in Strasbourg at the weekend. More than 50,000 people - many more than the organisers expected - took part in a loose, shambling but mostly good-humoured demonstration against the presence in the city of the tenth national congress of the far-right French National Front (FN). But, as the demonstration was due to end, a crowd of young men and women, carrying anarchist flags and banners, broke away from the approved route and attacked the riot police ringing the Palais des Congres where the FN was meeting.

The main demonstration had been a success. It was partly a promenade for the tribes of the French left, marching separately like floats in a carnival: the Socialists, the Communists, the ecologists and the feminists.But there was also an impressive turnout of ordinary French people, young and old, who wanted to state their revulsion of Jean-Marie Le Pen.

The violence was limited. It continued with the gratuitous smashing of shop windows in the city centre, another tear-gas charge and 40 arrests.

But this was enough to allow Mr Le Pen to claim that the real threat to democracy in France was not the FN, but the forces of "professional anti-racism" which refused to allow a "democratic party" to meet in peace.

A democratic party? By their friends you shall know them. Part of yesterday's conference was given over to fraternal greetings from some of the nastiest fringe groups in Europe, including a Mussolini-supporting outfit from Italy, and one of the most extremist Serb militias.

From Britain came a fulsome message of praise from Gregory Lauder-Frost, of the Western Goals Foundation - described fictitiously to the FN-delegates as a Conservative Party group. Mr Le Pen announced that he was working towards uniting all these rightist groups - Belgian, Romanian, Hungarian, Czech, Slovak - into a Europe-wide organisation called Euronat. He acknowledged that many of them hated each other, and had ill-tempered claims on each others' territory but, he said, "that does not stop them from being our friends".

A democratic party? Mr Le Pen was re-elected president yesterday afternoon by loud acclaim. There were no other candidates. What could be more democratic than that? The personal rivalries and tensions below the surface unity of the party were poorly disguised, however. Bruno Megret (the de facto Number Two of the FN, and architect of the pivotal mayoral victory last month in Vitrolles, near Marseilles, topped the poll for the 104 members of the central committee. But throughout yesterday's session he was damned with faint praise and suffered one minor snub after another.

Mr Le Pen made his usual litany of complaints about the snubs, lies, insults, plots and provocations which the FN suffers as the hands of the French political establishment and media.

In a conscious and vulgar provocation of his own, Mr Le Pen went on to compare this alleged victimisation of his party to the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis.

For a man who claims not to be anti-semitic, Mr Le Pen finds it necessary to refer to Jews rather often. He complained at one point that President Francois Mitterrand had attended an anti-Front demonstration "surrounded by Israeli flags".

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