The Front's old flame flickers

The video lists the sins of the 'Gang of Four', France's traditional parliamentary parties, ranging from the Communists to the Gaullists. Immigration is one, as is unemployment and not forgetting 'subculture'. Even Aids has its place.

After the video comes the music. As with every good vintage, an invariable je ne sais quoi persists from year to year in the subtle formula of the far-right National Front. In this particular show over the past decade, it has been in the music: the singing of 'Va, Pensiero' from Verdi's Nabucco, that heralds the arrival of the man himself on stage. Most of the 3,000-strong crowd in the Theatre de Verdure at Nice on Friday night seemed to be veterans of National Front rallies. Their roar started just before the crescendo, on went the spotlight and there was Jean-Marie Le Pen, in double-breasted dark suit, broad red- and blue-striped tie and red silk handkerchief.

The good news is that, after nearly a year in which he seemed to be undergoing a transition - some even suggested a soul- searching - when his speaking style degenerated into a bad-tempered rant, he has recovered his earlier form and is becoming statesmanlike. On Friday, he conducted a medals ceremony. A National Front militant stood erect while Mr Le Pen pinned the bronze Flame of the National Front to his lapel (the recipient had sustained bullet wounds while pasting up National Front posters).

Then Mr Le Pen, who is standing for a Nice constituency in the National Assembly elections that start next Sunday, devoted half an hour to explaining why, despite falling poll ratings, reports of his party's demise were premature. Whatever his arguments, though, the spark has gone. A party that seemed to be on the up 12 months ago has been all but absent from the national political scene since then. It gained nearly 15 per cent of the votes in regional elections last March, but most polls now credit it with about 11 per cent, a tally that would produce a couple of seats at most in the 577-seat assembly.

Yesterday the polls reaffirmed a string of forecasts that the Gaullists and their centre-right allies would gain a landslide 420 seats in the two rounds of voting that end on 28 March.

The score of seats that the 20- year-old National Front took under the PR system of the regional elections a year ago were spread over all of France's regional councils. Although that success conformed to poll predictions, it was well below the 20 per cent Mr Le Pen had expected.

Perhaps the National Front peaked a year ago and the fever has subsided. In the campaign to ratify the Maastricht treaty, the anti-Maastricht National Front was hardly a player. Its retreat fits the theory that, after every disapppointing result, it suffers a depression and turns inward.

In the Maastricht campaign, the initiative was taken by Philippe Seguin and Charles Pasqua, of the Gaullist RPR, whose 'No' campaign, run against the wishes of the party's leadership, almost succeeded. Mr Pasqua believes that a factor in the National Front's decline has been the more right-wing style of the Gaullist party. RPR leaders have at least become more direct in their treatment of immigration. In Limoges two weeks ago, Nicolas Sarkozy, the party's deputy secretary-general, attacked the recruitment of North Africans to teach mathematics and physics in secondary schools, arguing that out-of-work French engineers could be recycled to take the jobs.

The National Front's rise can be partly attributed to the fact that the French have always liked to cast a protest vote for marginal parties. Now, however, the voters have an untainted alternative: the Ecologists, who can expect about 15 per cent next Sunday.

With the ruling Socialists devastated by a series of corruption scandals, Mr Le Pen's main campaign poster shows him gazing skywards, hands clasped, over a caption, 'Head high and hands clean.' It does not explain, however, why the son of a Breton fisherman now owns a luxurious villa in the exclusive Paris suburb of Saint Cloud. (The house and an accompanying fortune were left to him by Hubert Lambert, a cement magnate, in 1976.)

In the video used to open this year's rallies, a child's voice pipes up: 'Please, Jean-Marie, draw me a clean France.' It is a request that, among his descriptions of Third World countries as 'bottomless demographic reservoirs' and quotations from the Gospel According to St John, he never answers.