Unrest in party's favor

Crises in France boost popularity of far-right National Front

April 23, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

PARIS -- France's far-right political party, the National Front, has emerged stronger than ever from the civil unrest that has beset the country in the past six months, a new survey shows, suggesting that the party could play a major role in the presidential election next year.

The National Front's outspoken and vehemently anti-immigration leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, has had occasional bursts of support before: Four years ago, he made it to the runoff for president, losing to President Jacques Chirac.

But after riots by second-generation immigrant youth last fall, Le Pen's approval rating in polls surged 5 percentage points, to 21 percent, according to a survey by IFOP, a French polling institute. That is not far behind the approval rating of Chirac's would-be successor, Dominique de Villepin, the embattled prime minister, whose score slumped to 29 percent this month amid the political fiasco when nationwide protests forced the government to scrap a new labor law.

Frederic Dabi, who wrote the report, said a string of national crises had bolstered Le Pen's standing, including the resounding rejection last year of a proposed European constitution, which was officially supported by Chirac's governing Union for a Popular Movement Party and the opposition Socialist Party.

A nationwide outburst of vandalism and arson by the children of France's largely Muslim immigrants further played into Le Pen's hands: The National Front responded with a computer-generated video that showed Paris in flames beneath a banner reading "Immigration, explosion in the suburbs, Le Pen foretold it."

The image of French-Arab and French-African youths hurling bottles and stones at anti-riot police during the recent demonstrations against the labor law is only likely to reinforce support for Le Pen, Dabi said.

"All of these crises were very different, but their common point is that they benefited parties outside the political system," Dabi said.

The National Front holds no seats in Parliament, but it has up to 30 percent of the seats on some municipal councils, many seats on regional councils and seven in the European Parliament.

More than a third of respondents in the IFOP survey said Le Pen's party was in tune with "the concerns of French people."

Still, few analysts contend that Le Pen can repeat his 2002 performance.

The Socialist Party did not unite behind a strong candidate in that election. And although it split over support for the European constitution last year, the party is clearly on the mend. Its rising star, Segolene Royal, is the front-runner among presidential contenders in popularity polls, with 34 percent support, according to a recent TNS Sofres/Unilog survey.

But Royal would be the first woman to lead France if she won, and many people question whether her early popularity is durable enough to carry her to such a historic victory.

Chirac's party, meanwhile, remains split between Villepin's supporters and those of the party's front-runner, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who has 30 percent voter support, according to the TNS Sofres/Unilog survey.

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