Far-right nominee polarizes France

Though unlikely to win, National Front's Le Pen shakes up political scene

Presidential runoff today

May 05, 2002|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PARIS -- Emmanuel Rothe favors France, family and Jean-Marie Le Pen, the extreme right-wing politician whose candidacy in today's French presidential runoff has horrified much of Europe.

To hear Rothe and other supporters of Le Pen describe this election, they are backing a candidate determined to reduce crime, restore family values and return France to greatness. They back change, they say, not his National Front's barely camouflaged racism directed against immigrants.

"Why fear the National Front more than the Communists?" asked Rothe, 29, a pilot. "We're not a fascist party."

Le Pen has shaken up French politics during a tumultuous season of street protests focused on the country's values and direction. He has forced his countrymen into a noisy, uncomfortable two-week national debate about immigration, social equality and leadership, thanks to his garnering the second-highest number of votes in the first round of the presidential election, behind President Jacques Chirac.

Polls predict that Le Pen has virtually no chance to win the election. They forecast that Chirac will gain up to 80 percent of the vote, allowing the country to consider Le Pen an aberration, the support for him merely a flirtation with the far right.

`There is a political correctness that compels us to say this is a drama," said Guy Carcassonne, a law professor at the University of Paris-Nanterre. "But it will be over. Chirac will be elected, and Le Pen will not be a threat. The reality is it's not a real danger."

Others say the support for Le Pen deserves closer attention.

"If the result is 80-20 for Chirac, it's a normal situation, it's just an accident," said Dominique Reynie, a professor at the Haut Ecole des Sciences Politiques specializing in public opinion. "If the gap is 70-30, in this case, the sense is we have a stronger extreme right."

Le Pen, 73, entered politics in 1956 when he was elected to the National Assembly as a member of a populist movement. He had fought in the French army's doomed battles in Vietnam and re-enlisted in 1958 when the military brutally battled an uprising in Algeria. In 1972, when several far-right groups united to create the National Front, he became the party's president. Two years later, he made his first presidential run.

And he kept on running, building a base among the disaffected. At the extremes, both left and right, are working class or unemployed voters fearful about their place in the society. Le Pen attracted them by blaming their woes on immigrants, accused of stealing jobs and corrupting French values.

Now, his presence in the presidential runoff has galvanized the country, with hundreds of thousands of pro- and anti-Le Pen voters taking to the streets for rallies and marches. May Day marked the peak, when the streets of the capital were jammed by demonstrators with two competing visions of one country.

About 20,000 Le Pen supporters -- middle-aged and white, accompanied by a few leather-clad skinheads -- marched by a statue of Joan of Arc, whom they see as a political patron for having protected France against invaders, and gathered at the Place de l'Opera.

"We say love this country, love it or leave it," said Marie-France Stirbois, a leading figure in the party, who marched the parade route in pumps. "Do I look as a monster -- honestly?" she asked. "We are sick and tired of being called Nazis or racists."

On a stage dwarfed by enormous television screens, Le Pen, who even his opponents concede is France's most gifted political speaker, delivered a stem-winder, preaching old virtues, taunting foes that a political upset was in the making, and concluding by singing the national anthem, "La Marseillaise."

It was a performance that played to Le Pen's base: the unemployed, the working class, who are absorbed with worries about crime, immigration and France's place on the world stage.

"The France he is talking about is a country where you can leave your car keys on the steering wheel and find them the next day," said one of Le Pen's supporters, Eric Limier, a 37-year-old financial services worker. "People are voting for law and order."

Forward vision

On the other side of the city, hundreds of thousands of anti-Le Pen demonstrators gathered, banging drums and hoisting hand-painted signs to deliver a firm message to Le Pen: Non. It was a diverse crowd, racially and ethnically, with students, families, the broad sweep of a country comfortable with its place in an increasingly united Europe led by the European Union.

"Our vision of France is to look forward," said Philippe Atallah, a 21-year-old university student of Lebanese descent. "Le Pen wants to look backward."

Atallah's classmates agreed, saying Le Pen's supporters were fueled by resentments born of poor jobs or nonexistent opportunities for economic and social advancement, and of France's struggle to maintain a prominent place in an increasingly interconnected, interdependent Europe.

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