Run-off marks high point of Le Pen's scary career

Election: France's run-off election will feature a right-wing candidate whose career has been built upon seizing opportunities.

April 28, 2002|By Patrick Jarreau | Patrick Jarreau,Special to The Sun

Against all odds, the run-off round of the French presidential election next Sunday will not be between the partners of "cohabitation," the incumbent President Jacques Chirac, candidate of the right-wing parties, and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who has been leading for five years a government supported by a left in Parliament.

With only 16.18% of the vote, Jospin was eliminated in the first round by far-rightist leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who beat him by less than a percentage point. So, for the first time in French political history, a far-right-wing candidate will be in the final run-off.

Chirac won 19.88 percent of the vote.

Whatever contribution that crime and, lately, the tensions between the Arab and Jewish communities made to Le Pen's success, the real fault lies with the left. Jospin and his "plurality" cabinet had been able to design a pragmatic "synthesis" of free market policies with good public service.

They brought France in line with the requirements of the Euro. They promoted both social progress and flexibility through the 35-hour work week. They reduced taxes while maintaining a high level of public spending on education and training.

Rather than supporting this synthesis, some left-wing and all leftist parties chose to campaign against it. Given Chirac's lack of appeal - he got the lowest vote ever for an incumbent president - many voters just stayed home. Some of those who didn't stay home actually expressed their anger or boredom by casting ballots for Le Pen.

Still, Le Pen's numbers were stunning.

Three years ago, in June 1999, in the European Union parliamentary elections, the list led in France by Mr. Le Pen got less than 6 percent of the vote. There had been a split in his own party, the National Front, with the younger Bruno Megret, creating the Republican National Movement and heading a list that got a little more than 3 percent.

This was two years after the snap elections called by President Chirac, which had given a majority in the National Assembly (the main chamber of Parliament) to the left wing, led by Jospin's Socialist Party. France's economy was getting better, and unemployment was decreasing. In 1998, the multiethnic French soccer team had won the World Cup, which had taken place in Paris and other big cities in France. The nation's morale was high.

To many, this also meant the end of the extreme right and of Le Pen, then 70 and roundly condemned for having hit a female socialist candidate during the 1997 campaign.

This fourth - and probably his last - run in the presidential election has been his best showing in a long political career.

Le Pen was 28 when he was elected to the National Assembly, in 1956, in the wave of a populist and short-lived movement named after its leader, Pierre Poujade, a shopkeeper in a small town of rural France.

The son of a fisherman in Brittany, whom he falsely pretended was killed resisting German occupation (his boat happened to be blown up by a sea mine), Le Pen was a gifted but lazy law student who never graduated and spent his youth binge-drinking and fighting in Paris' notorious Latin Quarter. With little else to do, he enlisted to fight in the waning days of the French war in Vietnam in 1954 and used this military adventure to enhance his status as an aging student activist in Paris.

After Charles de Gaulle returned to power in 1958, Le Pen decided to go back to the army in Algeria, where the French military was engaged in a brutal suppression of an Arab uprising and torture was a common practice. In 1965, he was the campaign manager of a far-right candidate in France's first presidential election since 1848, de Gaulle having persuaded the French to change the constitution to allow a popular election for president.

For obscure reasons, Le Pen was not very popular among the members of the small extreme-right groups that were still holding positions in law schools in Paris and some other campuses at the end of the 1960s. He made a living publishing and selling records of political songs and speeches, including Adolph Hitler's. In 1972, when several right-wing groups decided to unite in a new party, the National Front, Le Pen was smart enough to get chosen as a symbolic and provisional president, while the more serious contenders sorted out their rivalries.

Still, he won after one of the other main contenders for leadership of the French extreme right, an outspoken white supremacist and neo-Nazi named Francois Duprat, was killed in the never-solved explosion of his car. Then, Le Pen got very rich through persuading one of his followers, the heir to a wealthy industrialist, to write a will in his favor before he died of alcoholism at 40.

Twenty-four years later, there he is, facing his old nemesis the Gaullist party in the second round of a presidential election.

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