After last month's landmark victory in Vitrolles, Jean-Marie Le Pen's Front National looks to be on the verge of a major breakthrough. But can the extreme right really find a place at the heart of French politics? And should we be worried?

John Lichfield
Sunday 23 March 1997 00:02

Centre Neptune, Toulon. Imagine a lecture hall packed with Victor Meldrews, versions francais: a hall banked high with retired commercial travellers, grocers and bar-owners and their wives. They come from all over France; they all look and dress the same: the same blue jackets with gold buttons, the same print dresses, the same round dark spectacles with metal rims. It is the annual jamboree of the National Circle of the Retired and Pre-Retired, one of the fastest growing old-people's organisations in France.

The hall lights begin to flash, then dim. An immense tricolour is projected onto the rear of the stage. There is a dramatic pause. The loudspeakers bulge with marching music, hummed and then sung by a male choir. En masse, the 800 staid wrinklies leap to their feet, their fists punching the air like rock fans. They chant, rhythmically, gutterally: "Le-Pen-Le-Pen-Le- Pen."

Jean-Marie Le Pen, who seems to have ballooned in weight, proceeds to the stage where he gives a boxer's double-fisted salute. "Il mange trop bien," giggles the Monsieur Meldrew behind me. Le Pen is evidently among friends. But that is no surprise. The National Circle of the Retired is a front - one of three dozen single-issue fronts - for the Front National.

An experienced Le Pen-watcher told me that the old rabble-rouser - 69 this year - is showing the first signs of "slowing down". On this occasion, "Le Chef" has several fits of coughing; he loses his train of thought a couple of times (which is something new). Otherwise, he speaks, with great eloquence, and great vulgarity, for two hours without notes.

In the name of "Christian civilisation" and "the most elevated human values", he refers to one government minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, as Monsieur Merde-Lourde, or Mr Shit-Heavy. A cultural centre outside Toulon, which the FN mayor of the city is trying to close (too many foreign acts), is a centre culturel with a capital C and a capital Cul (arse). The conservative and high-Catholic audience (there are other FN audiences) love Le Pen's ideas and adore his vulgarity. He seems especially preoccupied with homosexuality tonight: of which more later.

The Toulon speech is part of a swing through the Front's strongholds before next week's annual congress in Strasbourg, which could be one of the most interesting and important in the party's history. Le Pen is test- marketing themes for next year's parliamentary elections. Income tax and inheritance tax should be abolished, immigration halted and the state minimised. At the same time French industry should be subsidised against global competition, and welfare payments for French (ie not Arab or black), old people and families should be increased. Christian civilisation, synonymous with France, is menaced by - a new Le Pen bugbear - US-inspired "globalisation" and the shadowy "lobbies" which are insisting upon it. There is no reference to the responsibility of Jews on this occasion; but one fleeting, possibly joking, appearance by "the Chief Freemason".

Defeatist-triumphalist paranoia has been Le Pen's metier for half a century: disastrously and clownishly until 1984; with increasing success in the last 13 years. The FN now controls four French towns, of which Toulon is the largest. The success last month in a re-run election in Vitrolles, north of Marseilles, was the most important so far. For the first time, the Front won a majority victory over all other parties in normal conditions. If the Front maintains its present standing in the polls (15 to 17 per cent), it could win enough parliamentary seats next year to disrupt, and further discredit, the mainstream parties.

But success also brings its own problems. The Front National has outgrown, but not forgotten, its racist, collaborationist origins: it has become a broad coalition, stretching from the demented to the merely angry, from the psychotic to the disaffected. It retains a strong base among the shop- keeping classes, represented at the meeting in Toulon; but it has also become the most popular single party among the French working class. It scores well with young voters. It is transforming itself into a broad- based movement, with single-issue tentacles in most areas of French society: the police, the army, unions, schools, animal rights.

The new Front is better organised than ever before; but it is also more thinly spread and incoherent. "Le Pen used to control everything, to decide everything," says one disaffected former insider. "There was a time when Le Pen was the FN and the FN was Le Pen. Now it has become too big for one man. It has escaped from him a little." Running town halls is a double- edged honour: it confers respectability; but also, for the first time, responsibility. So far the Front's municipal record is a bizarre mix of obsessive street-cleaning and petty provocations: banning "far-leftist" publications, such as the perfectly respectable Liberation, from local libraries and cancelling special school-lunches for Jewish and Muslim pupils.

There is no internal threat to Le Pen's leadership - that would be inconceivable (at present). But there are the beginnings of a threat to his personal supremacy. The threat comes from Bruno Megret, the man most responsible for giving the party a more modern political face; a man alleged by his opponents to be a more committed racist than Le Pen; the de facto Number Two of the party; and the de facto winner of the pivotal election at Vitrolles. Megret's wife, Catherine, ran as a substitute because he was banned after irregularities in a previous election. But there is no doubt who really won, both in Vitrolles and within the party.

The Strasbourg conference may actually give the first real clues as to how the two men intend to manage their submerged, but steadily growing, rivalry. With the parliamentary elections looming next year, French democracy is at a crossroads; but then so is the Front National.

Lorrain de Saint Affrique was for 10 years Le Pen's media guru and one of his closest political advisers. He was ejected from the party in 1994 for suggesting in public that Megret was leading the FN towards fascism and surrounding himself with neo-Nazis. You may wonder what de Saint Affrique thought was happening in the FN before. He argues that the party's pursuit of working-class votes, and its shameless espousal of almost socialist, anti-capitalist themes, has taken it far away from the party he first knew in 1984. He describes the old FN as Reagan-Thatcher Plus: economically liberal and socially authoritarian.

De Saint Affrique, who still receives threats from Front sympathisers, is cautious about revealing his address or meeting me in public. He agreed to meet only in my office. Chain-smoking American cigarettes, he sketches two contradictory scenarios. On the one hand, the Front may be on the threshold of a breakthrough which would be disastrous for France. On the other, he believes that the Front National is so riven with internal contradictions - and personal hatreds - that it could rapidly deflate if it fails to make ground next year against the mainstream parties.

"In any European country this century, whenever a large part of the working class has gone to the far right - in Germany, Italy, Spain - you had a recipe for a fascist government..." he says.

But the working classes, in France as elsewhere, are not what they were (only one in four of the French are now classed as "ouvriers", or workers). To win power in a modern democracy, you need the middle classes, where the Front National has, if anything, been losing ground.

"The problem," says de Saint Affrique, "is that the Front programme has become a kind of gag: utterly incoherent. Capitalist and anti-capitalist. Statist and anti-statist. Welfarist and budget- cutting. The present programme is non-applicable. If the FN came to power with such a programme, we would be reduced to Upper Volta in months."

The FN, founded 25 years ago, has always been a grouping of different strands of the far-right: royalists and fundamentalist Catholics, Petain- istes, anti-Semites and die-hard ex-colonials. Its internal geology is now more complex than ever.

"It is a coalition of the defeated," says de Saint Affrique. "Of people who feel themselves to have been defeated and want desperately to win again. People who think they lost World War Two twice - in 1940 and 1945. People who lost in Algeria in the 1960s. People who lost Vatican Two. People who believed in Communism and lost their faith. People who fear for the survival of the white race. People who don't like to live or work near Arabs. People who believed in the traditional right in France, but now feel betrayed by it. People who have lost their jobs, or fear they may lose their jobs. People who fear Brussels. People who feel France is losing its culture beneath hamburgers and baseball caps ... And these factions are, in some cases, mutually exclusive and, if you think they detest foreigners, you should see how they detest one another."

He says the danger for Le Pen and Megret is that some large reversal of the Front's fortunes, or some large scandal, could bring the whole house of cards down. "There is a sense in which, for the Front, the next 12 months is a question of 'ca passe ou ca casse' [literally, it wins or it breaks]."

But a strategic win for the Front next year would require only a performance in line with its present standing in the polls (which tends to under-count Frontiste voters). "It would take only a 17 per cent FN vote next March nationwide to 'enmerder' [bugger up] the whole system," says de Saint Affrique. This would give the FN a block of MPs in the National Assembly. It would put them in the second round in hundreds of constituencies and probably deliver the elections to the left.

With the Gaullist Jacques Chirac in the presidency until 2002, France would be plunged back into political "cohabitation", which is just what the Front wants. "A paralysed government of right and left allows them to present themselves as the only party really defending the French people..."

This article is mostly about the strength and dangers of the Front National but it is important to keep in mind the FN's weaknesses. There is a huge body of humanist, liberal-minded, Europe- leaning opinion in France - and not all of it on the terraces of the Cafe Flore or other preening-grounds for Left-Bank intellectuals.

Jean-Marie Le Pen is the most actively detested politician in France. In American poll-speak, his "negatives" would make him a non-starter in a presidential race. In one opinion poll this month, 79 per cent said they had a bad opinion of Le Pen. The electoral history of the Front is sometimes presented as a relentless and menacing ascent but, in percentage terms, the bare statistics are not impressive. After his startling breakthough at the European elections in 1984, when the FN got 11 per cent of the vote, Le Pen took 14.4 per cent in the presidential election in 1988 and 15.25 per cent in 1995. A rise of 4 percentage points in 11 years is hardly overwhelming (although it is a startling fact that 30 per cent of the French electorate have voted FN at some time).

The Front has failed to build a base among farmers and peasants. It remains very weak in the rural heart, and on the western seaboard of France, including in Le Pen's native Brittany. The Front's great bastions are the tense, depressed banlieues (inner suburbs) of Paris and Lyons; the Midi from the lower Rhone valley to Nice; parts of the far-north industrial area; and Alsace and Lorraine to the east. These areas coincide almost entirely with the areas which have the largest immigrant and ethnic-Arab populations.

The Front National's increasing grip on the urban working class (27 per cent of the vote in 1995) is scary. But there remains a still strong, almost tribal anti-fascist tradition in part of the French proletariat, at least in the older generations. One Front National organiser I spoke to in the Paris banlieues described his frustration with his communist father-in-law who "agrees with everything Le Pen says" but won't vote for him because he is "une ordure" (a shit).

There are some who would argue that the FN provides, involuntarily, a civic function: creating a safe outlet for far-right and racist attitudes, which have been rooted tenaciously in French public opinion for a century or more. Pierre-Andre Targuieff, an indefatigable chronicler and investigator of the FN, says: "It could be worse. The Front National ritualises and channels, and integrates in the democratic game, passions which otherwise might express themselves more convulsively." He says life has become so hard in the banlieues, and the racial tensions so great (out of sight and mind of Paris intellectuals) that if there were no FN to provide a safety valve, "we might be in a racial civil war in France."

Extending this theme, others suggest that the FN is, in some sense, a creature of the Renseignements Generaux, the French MI5. The Front is tolerated and controlled, but whenever it seems to be becoming too successful, its legs are mysteriously kicked from under it by one scandal or another.

In any event, it is undeniable that, at various moments, the Front has been nurtured by both traditional right and traditional left in France, in the confident belief that Le Pen would do greater damage to the other side. President Mitterrand put pressure on the state-controlled television to give Le Pen a platform in the early 1990s, hoping to scatter the traditional right. Parts of the centre-right played footsie with Le Pen (Jacques Chirac was always a great exception) in the hope of dishing the left. A former FN activist, who preferred not to be named, said the French establishment, one way or another, had helped to create Le Pennism. "And, whatever their intentions may have been, they now have a problem. The creature may be about to escape from the laboratory."

The great bogeys of the Front National used to be reds and immigrants (and, sometimes overtly, sometimes covertly, Jews and Freemasons). The FN's hate figures have now been extended to include Brussels and, above all, Uncle Sam.

After messing around for 25 years with the usual ultra-right-wing obsessions, from race to taxes, the Front has found that the great theme of the 1990s has fallen into its lap. The FN is energetically exploiting the fin de siecle anxiety which exists in almost every Western country: the fear that national cultural and economic identity may be submerged by a global culture and a global economy. To this it has added a virulent Europhobia, promoting the same fears of culture-crushing Euro-Federalism as the nationalist right wing of the British Conservative Party.

And - surprise, surprise - who, according to Front dogma, pulls the strings to promote globalism and "Euro-Federasty"? The Jews and the Freemasons.

Anti-Americanism, or fear of swamping by le culture Anglo-Saxon, exists in many areas of French society. It co-exists with an insatiable appetite for hamburgers, baseball caps and American movies on TV. The Front has taken the two facts and plaited them into a conspiracy by "Big Brother" America (and the usual suspects) to destroy the French nation and the French way of life. The FN's summer university last year became a Khomeini-esque feast of denunciation of the Great Satan. Le Pen said the US had become the "wooden horse of globalism" attempting to impose the "hegemony of a rootless and globalist ideology". His son-in-law Samuel Marechal said that, once in power, the FN would re-impose "croque-madames and cognac-Schweppes instead of hamburgers and whisky-Coca".

This is the Front's standard demagogic technique applied to a new enemy: authentic fears and quasi-facts are intercut with fantasies, obscuring the boundaries between reality and paranoia. It is easy to make fun but the Front's new anti-American, anti-globalist crusade is gaining converts. Quite independently of the FN's efforts, France has been seized by an exaggerated crisis of confidence in the capacity of France and Frenchness to survive in the modern world. One hears intelligent, Le Pen-fearing people suggesting that, on this issue, the Front is "asking the right questions". Borrowing a favourite word from Megret, it is a short step from that to the "banalisation" of the Front's extremist answers.

Events are conspiring to help the Front in other ways. There is now a widespread contempt in France for the traditional governing elites and for mainstream parties. As Le Pen pointed out with delight at the Toulon rally, over 500 politicians, mostly obscure, some well known, have been convicted or charged with corruption in recent years. Many of these cases flow from the institutionally dishonest methods of financing political parties which began to fall apart two or three years ago. Some involve outright embezzlement.

A financially minor, but politically serious, series of charges hangs over the head of the Mayor of Paris, Jean Tiberi, a close friend and party colleague of President Chirac. A series of court cases is just beginning on the slush-funding of the Socialist Party. Bernard Tapie, an emblematic radical-left figure of the late-Mitterrand years, and a vigorous assailant of the Front National, is in jail for manifold swindles.

The last 16 years - the period of the rise of Le Pennism - has seen an apparently healthy alternation, and even co-habitation, of left and centre- right. But it is a frequent complaint that both left and right, once elected, have abandoned their promises and nostrums. Until the last couple of years, there has been a great continuity and similarity in the politics of both main political families. In the last two years, Chirac and his Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, have promoted a series of mainly sensible, state-shrinking reforms; but they were not what they promised the electors; and unemployment, amongst the worst in Europe, continues to rise. So does the cynicism, even nihilism, of sections of the electorate. Jean-Marie Le Pen has, as always, a unifying conspiracy theory: the mainstream parties pursue the same policies - "la pensee unique" - because they are following orders from the Euro-globalist lobbies.

Onto this favourable battleground, the most helpful political landscape it has ever encountered, will pour next year the Front National's new model army. This is the third factor in the Front's favour. The party has been busy over several years "de-demonising" itself (another Megret concept) by putting down broader roots in French society and both smartening and toughening its political act.

Not all of this activity is down to Bruno Megret. Some credit goes to others, including his great enemy Bruno Gollnisch, the party's secretary general (who passes for a moderate beside Megret but is fond of arguing, even in semi-public, that the Nazis have been given a bad name).

There is now hardly a cause or special interest in France for which the Front National does not have a reach-down pressure group. We have met the FN pensioners. There are also FN unions, especially strong in the police and prisons. There are FN organisations for, inter alia, teachers, council-house dwellers, farmers, shop-keepers, dockers, railway workers, students, animal lovers and hunters. (FN hunters promote the right to kill birds and animals, whatever the Eurocrats may say; FN animal lovers want to protect France's wildlife. Incoherence is a fact of life in the Front.)

The Front has been watering its grass roots just as the mainstream parties have been neglecting theirs. It is a common refrain in France, as in other democracies, that local activism is dying. "People are coming to us because we go to them," says Michel Paulin, the Front's deputy president in Seine- St Denis, the once heavily red departement north-east of Paris, where FN support is growing rapidly. "We are there on the street, on the landings of the tower blocks. People see we don't have horns. They see our ideas are their ideas. And they don't see the other parties at all."

One of the most effective, and disturbing, products of the diversification of the FN is its youth wing, the Front National de Jeunesse (FNJ), which claims to be the biggest youth movement in French politics. It is run by Le Pen's son-in-law Samuel Marechal, another rising FN figure. His guide book advises members to be "discreet, act prudently and with sang- froid. Be tolerant, silence all the preconceptions of class, age and religion. Communicate our message seductively. Show a sympathetic face."

The FNJ has two feeder movements for youngsters, starting at the age of eight with the Cadets de France, a nationalist scouts and guides' movement. The cadets wear blue-and-white-hooped shirts and are much preoccupied by soil, family and country.

The youth policy is already bearing fruit. In the 1980s most FN electoral candidates were middle-aged, or older, often local, and as Front officials admit, frequently incompetent. The great majority of the FN candidates at next year's parliamentary elections will be below 40, many in their twenties, and nationally trained and chosen.

They are the product of a Bruno Megret initiative: an Institute de Formation Nationale to train FN candidates and officials. The official aim is to make the FN ground troops as competent, articulate and presentable as those of other parties. The unofficial aim, according to Megret opponents, is to create his own power-base within the party.

Front headquarters, Saint Cloud: The FN HQ is a squat, modern block on the banks of the Seine in Saint Cloud, just outside Paris. The reinforced wire on the windows makes it look like a cross between an insurance office and a military-police post. For some reason it is known by the Frontistes as the "paquebot" (the ferry boat).

Bruno Megret, unlike Le Pen, is gracious with his time when foreign journalists ask for interviews. He is a dark, small, precise, intense man of 48, with a winning smile. Talking to him is rather like talking to a very intelligent vole. But he is also reminiscent, in his cold confidence (but not his views), of more mainstream French politicians: Alain Juppe or Michel Rocard. This is not surprising. Like them, and unlike almost everyone else in the Front National, he is a product of the official French assembly line for high officials and statesmen. He went to the Ecole Polytechnique, one of the elite "grandes ecoles" for the super-clever. He qualified high enough to become an Ingenieur des Ponts et Chaussees, which does not mean he has ever built bridges or roadways. It is an academic distinction which marked him as a man expected, almost guaranteed, to go far.

Initially he worked for Chirac's neo-Gaullist RPR. In 1981, when Mitterrand came to power, he gave up the promise of a mainstream career to found his own far-right party. At that time the FN was still something of a joke. But Le Pennism soared and Megretism did not. In 1986, he joined forces with the Front and in 1988 became its "delegate general". He is now, in effect, the second power in the FN and is often referred to by Frontistes as the Number Two (but not by Le Pen, who says he has no deputies or heirs apparent).

Megret's detractors - some still in the Front, others formerly in the Front - see him as a more die-hard racist and ideologically committed fascist than Le Pen. A committed enemy of Megret, Lorrain de Saint Affrique puts it this way: "His group within the FN believes that Europe has been betrayed by the decadent Judaeo-Christian tradition which has controlled it for 20 centuries. It is time to return to Greek and pagan values, of the blood and the soil, which will ensure the survival, then the triumph, of the white race.

"But he is also, if you like, a double agent, in the sense that he is able to present himself as a moderate man, a potential maker of alliances with the traditional right, a skilled political operator... someone who, unlike Le Pen, can make the Front National acceptable to the bourgeoisie."

For a neutral and dogged observer of the Front such as the writer Pierre- Andre Targuieff, this is revengeful nonsense. Megret is committed to hard- right, authoritarian-nationalist, extreme Thatcherite-Reaganist and anti- socialist ideas and the rest is mostly tactics and cynicism. His ambition is to replace Jean-Marie Le Pen and make the FN the premier party on the French right, allied with mainstream parties, and infecting them with his ideas.

Which Megret does Megret admit to being? The fascist pur et dur?

A grin. A wave of the hand. "It is not true. One cannot always expect to make friends in politics. I am attached to the highest human values. I scare people, especially outside the movement, and they say these things of me. Why? Because I am a proponent of maximum political efficiency... and efficiency scares people."

The moderniser then? The man who wants to make the FN part of the mainstream?

"I am for modernisation. That is right. This is a young political movement. It is still in the process of elaborating itself, of maturing. Ever since I joined the FN my aim has been this: to help it progress from something that was, in a sense, a protest movement, an expression of anger and frustration, and help it to become a great movement capable of governing France. A movement that will one day govern France. We must aim not just to protest but to 'gagner' and 'gouverner'."

He denies that his aim is to build alliances with the centre right - or at least not in its present form. He has been accused of being a vile careerist who would betray FN dogma for the sake of a ministry. But he says this is wrong. "I have no intention of betraying my cause." He is in favour of strategic alliances only if there is some kind of "eclatement" (explosion) of the traditional right. Then he would consider alliances with whatever emerged from the wreck. He says his model is the new-right (he does not like neo-fascist) National Alliance party in Italy, which refused to co-operate with the corrupt old Christian Democrats but, when they collapsed, formed an alliance with Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia.

Is the FN a racist party? At least, he must accept that it uses race, and exploits racism?

"We are not a racist party. But we do respond to the real problems of real people in the real world. One of the real problems facing people in France is unrestricted immigration and the crime and insecurity that comes with it. We face up to that problem because we are not crippled by the political correctness of the other parties. But that does not mean we are racist. The Front National is based on the most elevated ideas and values. But if people say to us, 'Look, we have problems with crime because of the amount of illegal immigrants in our area'; or, 'We cannot sleep at night because the immigrant family next door plays music until 2am' - I simplify a little, of course - then we have to respond to these real problems."

The new FN strategy of demonising the US and compounding French fears of globalism is as much a Megret strategy as a Le Pen strategy. Does he accept that it is incoherent for the FN to be ultra-liberal on the one hand and protectionist and welfarist on the other? Anti-communist and anti-American?

"Our policies have evolved. But this has been to take account of the change in circumstances, the historic fact of the decline of the communist threat and the rise of a new threat, of globalisation. But it would be wrong to say that we aim to be a workers' party of the right. We aim to appeal to, to reach, all social classes. We are already strong and credible on the issues of immigration and security; but we aim also to be credible on what I call the third pillar: economic and social policy. This means the elaboration of a coherent policy to oppose the Euro-globalisation road chosen by all the other parties. The cleavage in French politics, now and in the future, is no longer the traditional cleavage between right and left... The real cleavage is between those who have chosen an internationalist route and those who have chosen to defend our national borders, our national values and our national identity..."

I pitch him a rather obvious trick question. Le Pen's name has hardly come up in his replies so far: Megret has concentrated on his vision of the future and - implicitly - his criticisms of the limited, pre-Megret ambitions of the Front. Is it not time for the Front to rid itself of its most obvious electoral burden, Jean-Marie Le Pen and his 70 per cent plus negatives? Megret doesn't rise to that but he doesn't conspicuously defend Le Pen's electoral assets either.

"I'm not going to be drawn into that kind of discussion. I prefer to concentrate on the contempt that exists for the other political figures in France." This was the real lesson of Vitrolles, he says, where the FN defeated an ineffective and allegedly corrupt socialist mayor, supported by all the major parties. The two most destructive factors in politics are "corruption and powerlessness".

According to leaks from inside the paquebot, Le Pen wants Megret's skin. But he does not quite know how to get it. One way, it is suggested, might be to re-start the rumours launched by anti-Megret forces in the FN a few years ago that Megret is a closet homosexual. These rumours were later scotched when Megret married the subsequent mayoress of Vitrolles, Catherine Raskovsy, the daughter of Jewish-Russian immigrants. (Nothing is simple in the FN; Megret's grandfather was Greek. But then 40 per cent of French people have one foreign grandparent and few of them - certainly not Megret - resemble the Bjorn Borg look-alikes presented as the origins of the French nation in FN propaganda).

Le Pen has, as mentioned earlier, been much preoccupied with homosexuality lately. He makes vulgar asides in his speeches, in which he talks of defending the FN from the right and the left, and in the case of certain establishment politicians, from behind. Is this also some kind of coded warning to Megret?

Le Pen's problem is that, for the first time in the history of the FN, there is a force within the party with an independent power base. Half the regional leaders of the FN are Megret supporters; so are at least half the members of the national committee. Megret has enemies like Bruno Gollnisch, the secretary general, promoted by Le Pen three years ago specifically to counter him. But Megret has continued to introduce bright young men, loyal to him rather than Le Pen, to positions of power within the FN. His position, especially after the victory in Vitrolles, is seemingly unassailable. That is what especially annoys Le Chef.

There is another problem for Le Pen, whose most powerful single driving force, according to former associates, is not ideology but vanity. He could not bear to stand and lose in next spring's parliamentary elections if, at the same time, Megret stood and won. Megret has been cleverly nursing a constituency in the south which includes two FN towns, Vitrolles and Marignane. He seems well placed to win a seat in the Assemblee Nationale. But Le Pen has no particular electoral home to go to. Wherever he goes, the heaviest artillery of the other parties will be ranged against him. In Nice, the day before the Toulon speech, Le Pen seemed to say that he would stand for a regional council in the Midi, but not for parliament. This would avoid a potentially humiliating comparison with Megret; but it would risk leaving Megret a free run as the Front leader in the National Assembly. In Toulon, Le Pen told the adoring pensioners that he made no such decision. He would leave himself free to decide "where the beast [ie Le Pen] will strike".

With all its internal hatreds and contradictions, how great a threat is the FN to democracy in France? There is a modern France which is a great, stolid, bourgeois and predominantly middle-class, Western, democratic country which, like any other, clings to the safe centre. But there is also a France of history - and quite recent history - which is convulsive, tumultuous, capable of creative, and destructive, bursts of passion.

I put the question to a number of political analysts, who came up with remarkably similar answers. The ingredients are there for a lurch towards the FN: the high unemployment; the contempt for major parties; the tensions in the banlieues; the exaggerated fear of globalisation; the Europhobia present below the surface. A sudden crisis, or combination of crises, might hugely magnify the FN vote: a violent spill-over of the conflagration in Algeria into France; a disastrous launch of the European single currency; some mighty event to crystallise fear of Americanism.

But the likelihood is that, under Le Pen, for all his charisma and brutal eloquence, the FN will remain a vehicle of destruction and provocation and personal aggrandisement, rather than a vehicle of victory or government. Only one in four of the people who voted for Le Pen in 1995 said they imagined he could ever be President. At the next presidential election in 2002, Le Pen will be 74. It is a fair bet that Bruno Megret does not expect Le Chef to be the FN candidate.

He may be disappointed. If Megret is successful, however, and takes over the FN, many fear that he will prove a more insidious and longer-term threat to the health of the country he professes to love. "My fear is that, if that ever happened, it would be terribly and permanently injurious to the image of France, to the place of France in the world," says Lorrain de Saint Affrique. "The FN poses as the defender of the French spirit and the French interest: it may, in fact, now become the greatest threat to France..."

But it may be more likely that a Front without Le Pen would finally pay the price of its savage internal hatreds and manifold political contradictions. "A kind of Greek tragedy is unfolding," says Pierre-Andre Targuieff. "The personality of Le Pen is the biggest obstacle to the electoral success of the Front National; but it is the personality of Le Pen which holds the Front National together. It is doubtful that it can succeed without him."

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