Posted on May 22, 2006

Le Pen and French Far Right Achieve Record Popularity

Kim Willsher, Telegraph (London), May 21, 2006

As the French government tears itself apart amid a trumped-up corruption scandal, and the socialist opposition fails to capitalise on the chaos, Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the far-Right National Front (FN), has gained record levels of support — without saying a word in public.

According to a survey in the news magazine Le Point last week, 22 per cent of the French population has a “favourable opinion” of Mr Le Pen — up five per cent from the previous month.

The rating is far higher than the 16 per cent popularity which Mr Le Pen scored in polls four years ago, just before the presidential elections in which he shocked France by beating the socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, in the first round. He lost to Jacques Chirac in the second round and political commentators insisted his success was a blip that would never happen again.

“His ideas have never been so popular,” said his daughter and likely successor, Marine. She is “very, very optimistic” about her father’s chances in next year’s presidential election. “He will be in the second round, the only question is who he will be against,” Miss Le Pen said.

“It’s a case of people realising that reality is reflecting what we have been saying for the past 30 years. It is also because the political system is caving in on itself.”

The swing to the extreme Right has been attributed to a series of events, during a period of economic gloom, that have crippled the government: last autumn’s rioting in the suburbs; student violence over a proposed employment law; and now the Clearstream dirty tricks scandal.

Polls have shown the FN relentlessly on the rise since last November’s violence in the immigrant ghettos on the outskirts of France’s biggest cities. In October, eight per cent of French people said they would vote for Mr Le Pen’s party.

By December that had risen to 11 per cent, and by February it was 12 per cent. In March, at the height of the student riots, would-be FN voters increased to 13 per cent and in April they were 14 per cent.

Before 2002, the highest point for the FN, which was created in 1972, was in the mid-1990s, when the party took over six mayoral posts, capitalising on increasing concerns over immigration.

Supporters believe that Mr Le Pen’s silence over the Clearstream scandal has helped to distinguish him from the tarnished crowd.

Most critics of the French government have had a field day over the scandal, which has pitted President Chirac and the prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, against Nicolas Sarkozy, the foreign minister — all members of the same right-of-centre party.

But Mr Le Pen has made a point of keeping out of the political mudslinging, telling friends that Clearstream is nothing more than a “sordid masquerade”.

“There’s no reason for me to attack these people with my little hammer when they’re smashing each other up with a road drill,” he said privately, according to Le Figaro newspaper.

Both Mr Sarkozy and Mr Chirac have attempted to win over FN supporters, offering increasingly hardline immigration policies.

But Miss Le Pen dismissed Mr Sarkozy’s tough new immigration bill, which was passed by the lower house of parliament last week, and his declaration that foreigners in France could either “like it or leave”.

She said: “Either he has changed and is convinced by our ideas, in which case why insult us, or he is obsessed with getting into power no matter what. “Personally I believe it is the latter.” Pollsters who have been studying voting intentions — separate from popularity ratings — suggest it would be unwise to write off the FN leader in next year’s vote.

In April — before the Clearstream scandal — a survey by the Sofres polling company predicted that Mr Le Pen could finish third in the first round of voting for the presidency.

It put him behind Mr Sarkozy and the Socialist contender Ségolène Royal, but ahead of Mr de Villepin.