Esther Leneman: Non! The attitudes upon which Le Pen thrives are not confined to France

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The Independent Online

Forget the patronising tone and the whiff of political opportunism. With Britain's local elections only a few days away, the temptation to use the shadow of Jean-Marie Le Pen to try to stir voters out of their collective lethargy must be irresistible. The surprise emergence of the leader of the National Front as runner-up in the French elections was bound to trigger a debate. And so it should. But is it the right one?

We can safely assume that the local elections are not going to turn the British National Party into a significant political force. Yet I do not believe that self-righteous satisfaction is in order. The strongest obstacle to the rise of the far-right in this country has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with geography. Some things are so obvious that they become easy to forget: Britain is an island, that "precious stone set in the silver sea". Your island status serves as a moat defensive to a house against the envy of less happier lands.

Yes, Britain is an island – and those who come from less happier lands find it very difficult to enter. Ask any refugee in the Red Cross camp in Sangatte how welcome they feel. Security measures around the only soft spot in the British armour are tightened all the time. The camp in Sangatte has become a thorn in the relationship between France and Britain. Every year, when ministers meet for the bilateral summits, the British position is inflexible. The camp must be closed. What will happen to the 1,500 men, women and children who are stuck there? Where should they go? "Sorry guv, not our problem."

While there is one Sangatte at the entrance of the Channel Tunnel, France has almost 4,000 miles of borders. Experts say it would take 100,000 police and customs officers to monitor these borders efficiently. Needless to say, there is no monitoring – and no official estimates of the number of immigrants who enter France illegally every year. Who can say, hand on heart, that they know how this country would react to a steady, constant, uncontrolled flow of immigration? Seen from these shores, Jean-Marie Le Pen may seem like a political UFO whose landing a week ago came as a surprise. Yet, on and off, for the past 15 years, the leader of the Front National has been a significant player on the French political scene.

"I don't know Le Pen but I find his policies repellent..." pronounced Tony Blair this week, adding: "I think it is vitally important that people who believe in democracy, who loathe those policies of racism and narrow-minded nationalism, fight it at every level."

Le Pen has been quick to pick up on the anomaly of the British government preaching about immigration politics, claiming he is no more racist than Mr Blair – and adding that Sangatte asylum seekers should be sent to Britain. In Brussels, Chris Patten has upbraided Le Pen as "one of the less agreeable aspects of European civilisation".

At first, the French political establishment reacted with the same self-righteous indignation. But this did not deter the electorate. In 1986, the National Front polled almost 10 per cent of the vote, gaining 35 seats in parliament. That was widely explained by the fact that François Mitterrand had briefly introduced proportional representation. Two years later, at the presidential election, Le Pen polled more than 14 per cent of the vote – more than 4 million votes. The message could no longer be ignored or dismissed. Thus immigration and insécurité, the twin obsessions of the National Front, entered the political scene for good.

My impression is that British politics has also been "Le Pen-ised" – long before the man himself started making headlines here. There is a difference in approach: crime and immigration are more tightly linked in France than here. But would the David Blunkett of 10 years ago never have talked of schools being "swamped" by the children of asylum-seekers? Le Pen may be abhorrent, but the attitudes on which he thrives are not confined to France.

Esther Leneman is London correspondent for Europe 1 radio