National Front is gaining ground France: An ailing economy, official apathy and corruption have given the right-wing party, once written off as a troubling joke, a foothold in the country's political process.

Sun Journal

February 25, 1997|By Frank Viviano | Frank Viviano,SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

PARIS -- Bruno Megret is a Frenchman who studied in the

United States, trained to be a city planner and now is the deputy leader and chief strategist of the fastest-growing political party in France, the extreme-right National Front.

Indeed, he has guided a small, shaky movement on the neofascist outer fringe of French politics into the mainstream.

Over the past 18 months, National Front mayoral candidates have won control of four cities in France, including the port of Toulon, headquarters of the French navy.

On Feb. 9, Megret's wife, Catherine, was elected mayor of Vitrolles, a bleak high-rise commuter city of 40,000 on the outskirts of Marseille.

The campaign was built on the ideas Megret pondered at the University of California at Berkeley, many of which turn Berkeley's leftist tradition on its head.

He is the principal author of the National Front demand for "national preference," an upside-down affirmative action program in which jobs, public housing and university slots are reserved for members of the nation's ethnic-French majority. Under his supervision, the party has begun a nationwide "struggle" against racial mixing.

But when asked why the National Front is doing so well, Megret zeros in on the ailing French economy, official apathy and the corruption scandals that have rocked the centrist political establishment in recent years.

"We're the only party that has actual contact with the population," he says. "We talk about the political establishment's 'magouille' " -- sleaze is the nearest English equivalent -- "and the crime, unemployment and unbearable taxes."

In Vitrolles, during the campaign, the Socialist incumbent spoke over and over about the National Front as reminiscent of the Nazi era. But the mayor didn't want to talk about la magouille -- not with a criminal indictment for falsifying public financial records hanging over him. And after 14 years in office, who else could he blame for the city's 22 percent unemployment rate?

The situation was all too typical in a country where unemployment is at a postwar high, and millions of voters have lost faith in politics as usual.

In addition to Toulon and Vitrolles, the National Front won victories in the past year and a half in Marignane, another Marseille suburb, and in Orange, 40 miles to the north. It came within a hairbreadth of winning recent elections in the Mediterranean city of Nice, and in Dreux, an industrial center near Paris.

The road from Berkeley to Vitrolles has been a complicated one for Megret, involving a sharp separation from other ambitious members of his social class and generation -- and the abandonment of a Gaullist party that gave him his political start.

Although Megret would not put it this way, his rise is also the story of a cool technocrat's gradual triumph over a buffoon. The buffoon is National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party's founder. A former soldier who acquired his right-wing politics -- and hatred of Arabs -- during service in the bloody Algerian revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, Le Pen is a demagogue who seldom worries about the effects of his antics.

He is a French version of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the loose cannon of Russian politics, and indeed, regards Zhirinovsky as a personal friend. Both men openly flaunt their racism and anti-Semitism, blaming their nations' economic problems on dark-skinned "foreigners" or "international Jewish bankers."

When Le Pen ran the National Front alone, the party was associated in the public mind with skinhead youth gangs that desecrated Jewish cemeteries and assaulted immigrants.

Le Pen's own image is that of a barracks brawler, a lowlife tough whom mainstream voters cannot imagine at the helm of the French state. As long as Jean-Marie Le Pen was the guiding light of the National Front, it could be written off by the establishment as a crude if troubling joke, rather than a serious contender for power.

Le Pen remains the National Front's official leader, but it is Megret, the party administrator, who increasingly calls the policy shots.

The establishment cannot simply write Megret and his wife off, because their establishment credentials are impeccable.

Catherine Megret is an alumna of Cambridge University. She was raised in the chic 16th Arrondissement of Paris. When she returned to France from Cambridge, it was as publicity director for Regate, a yachting magazine. On her father's side, Catherine Megret is descended from affluent Russian Jews who fled to France after the Bolshevik Revolution, a legacy the party offers as "proof" that the National Front is not anti-Semitic.

Bruno Megret, before earning a master's degree in city planning at Berkeley in 1975, completed a civil engineering degree at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris. It's not quite enough to say that the Polytechnique is France's MIT. When Megret was a student there in the 1960s, it was also the most elite institution in the West's most elite educational system.

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