Paul Webster in Paris, Sunday January 11, 2004, The Observer
A double electoral assault by Jean-Marie Le Pen and his daughter, Marine, is threatening to cause an even bigger explosion on the French political scene than his extremist party’s shock result in the 2002 presidential elections.
With two months before regional elections on 21 March, the National Front leader is favourite to become chairman of the powerful Marseille-based Provence-Côte d’Azur-Alpes Assembly (PACA), while his daughter could hold the balance of power in the Paris region, where she leads the party’s campaign.
Le Pen, 75, once considered too old to continue his 30-year anti-immigrant campaign, is treating the elections as a revenge match with Jacques Chirac, who defeated him in the presidential run-off.
’The National Front is going to create surprises in a number of France’s regions,’ he said this weekend during a visit to Nice. ‘You loved 21 April  and you’re going to adore 21 March, a springtime offered by the National Front to the nation.
’This really is a national election because Jacques Chirac has decided to lead the fight against me. My [right-wing] opponent here has been chosen only because of his obedience to the President.’
The PACA region is France’s third wealthiest and has been at the forefront of the party’s policies since Le Pen first ran for President in 1974, when he polled only 190,000 votes nationwide.
In 2002, 27.7 per cent of PACA voters backed Le Pen’s populist demands for ‘national preference’ measures, including the enforced repatriation of immigrants and an authoritarian law-and-order programme.
Marine Le Pen, 35, who is known as ‘The Clone’ because of her physical and political resemblance to her father, boosted her own stature during an aggressive 2002 general election bid in the formerly Socialist-dominated areas of the north, where 24 per cent of voters in Picardy backed the National Front.
Her dynamic image as a politically active working wife has ensured a strong media profile. She has reinvigorated the party, and is expected to attract Paris-based professional voters from the Gaullist and centrist movements.
The elections are being presented as a mid-term test of Chirac’s presidency. A high level of abstention is predicted and the unpopularity of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin’s government would also appear to play into the National Front’s hands.
The Left has never recovered from the defeat of Lionel Jospin, who was ousted by Le Pen in the first round of the last presidential race. Even after left-wingers voted for Chirac, Le Pen still polled nearly five million votes — 18 per cent — in the run-off.
Chirac’s chances of crushing Le Pen in the PACA have been seriously compromised by splits in the Cabinet, where the Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, works assiduously to improve his own popularity for what the public sees as a challenge to Chirac at the next presidential election.
National Front strategists claim Sarkozy has pushed voters into their camp by calling for ‘positive discrimination’ in favour of settled immigrant minorities, and successfully campaigning for the outlawing of Christian and Jewish signs of religion in schools to justify a ban on Islamic veils.
During his Mediterranean campaign, which started earlier than that of his opponents from the presidential majority union, the UMP, which runs the PACA, Le Pen said that one of Sarkozy’s most damaging errors was to create an official permanent council to speak for all Islamic factions.
One political researcher, Erwan Lecoeur, said that a feeling was growing even among moderate right-wing voters that ‘a dose of Le Pen’ was needed to shake up the political scene in general.
’The Chirac government’s unfavourable balance book on social and economic matters, along with a rise in unemployment, has increased the number of voters ready to join the National Front camp.’