Le Pen Remains Thorn in Side for France’s Chirac
Mark John, Reuters, SignOnSanDiego, Mar. 22
PARIS — Two years after France’s veteran anti-immigrant campaigner Jean-Marie Le Pen stole the glory in presidential elections, his National Front have pulled off a new coup with fresh gains in regional elections.
Benefiting from voter anger over high unemployment, painful economic reforms and resurgent fears over terrorism, the National Front grabbed 16 percent of the nationwide vote in Sunday’s first round to secure one of its best election scores.
Analysts said the success showed President Jacques Chirac’s bid to wipe the National Front off the political map with policies aimed at luring its voters Back to the mainstream — such as a tough law and order drive — had so far failed.
“This proves the National Front’s ability to be a thorn in the side of both mainstream left and right — and particularly the right,” said Nonna Mayer, an expert on the far-right at political institute Cevipof.
First-round voting Sunday gave 40 percent of the vote to resurgent left-wing parties, well ahead of the 34 percent score of the mainstream right.
Mayer said the National Front appeared to have capitalized on all the same issues as it did in 2002 — mostly working class resentment of Paris’s haughty political elite and discontent over France’s high unemployment stuck just under 10 percent.
Added to that was anger at the government’s drive to reduce welfare state spending, fears over the European Union’s imminent enlargement eastwards and concerns over terrorism.
“That terrorist threat has tended to stoke anti-Muslim sentiment,” said Stephane Rozes at polling institute CSA, cautioning that the effect from that was probably slight.
LE PEN AS CHEERLEADER
The National Front’s success is nowhere near on the same scale as Le Pen’s triumph in 2002, when he won around 18 percent of the vote in the presidential vote to finish runner-up to Chirac in a result which sent shockwaves through Europe.
But it is an improvement on the 15 percent of the vote it won in the 1998 regional elections. In regions like Picardie in the north and the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur (PACA) region in the south, it even notched up scores of up to 25 percent.
It also demonstrated that the party can perform without its 75-year-old leader as candidate. Le Pen was barred from standing in the region of his choice on a technicality and so spent the campaign touring the country as the party’s main cheerleader.
“That they managed to achieve this score without Le Pen as a candidate is a surprise,” said Jean-Marc Lech of pollster Ipsos.
Just as Le Pen never stood any chance of becoming president in 2002, so the National Front stands little chance of gaining control of one of France’s 26 regional councils next week.
But by qualifying to field candidates for next Sunday’s run-offs in 17 regions, it is seen accentuating the scale of the government’s defeat by splitting France’s right-wing vote.
That in turn could smooth the way for opposition Socialists to win back a majority of regional councils that set policy from local roadbuilding to tourism.
“A vote for the National Front is a vote for the left,” warned government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope, who came second to the Socialist candidate in the Ile-de-France region around Paris after Le Pen’s daughter Marine scored 13 percent.