Aged 78 but bursting for a new fight, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the far Right in France, yesterday savoured news that shook the main parties in the race for the presidency next spring: he is enjoying a surge of popularity.
A poll by the CSA institute showed that 17 per cent of voters supported the chief of the National Front. This is eight points higher than the same period before the 2002 election, in which M Le Pen shocked Europe by coming second to Jacques Chirac.
M Le Pen, campaigning for the fifth time since 1974, has been insisting that he is heading for a bigger breakthrough than in 2002, when he won nearly 17 per cent of the vote in the first round. He is, he says, benefiting from public anger over immigration, ghetto violence and disgust with politicians.
“I am convinced that I will be in the second round,” he said yesterday. “The economic, financial and social position of the country will be much more serious . . . so I will benefit from the rejection of the governing parties.” With typical bluster, the one-time paratrooper and 1950s MP told the weekly magazine VSD that he is not just preparing for another run-off—he lost heavily to M Chirac in 2002.
“I want to govern, in order to apply my ideas. Everyone reproached me for talking about immigration . . . now everyone can see that this is the chief cause of the worrying events in our country,” he said.
A repeat of the 2002 first-round result is unlikely because of the domination of two reform-minded favourites in their early fifties—Ségolène Royal, of the Socialists, and Nicolas Sarkozy, the leader of the centre-right Union for a Popular Movement. Each is trying to appear tough on law and order and immigration—M Le Pen’ s recruiting ground.
The shine is fading from both candidates in the face of opposition from party rivals and M Le Pen is predicting that “Sargolène and Ségozy”, as he mockingly calls the duo, will fall before the final round, which will take place next May.
As in 2002, the Socialist candidate may be weakened by a fragmented field from the far Left, but M Le Pen’s biggest hope is that M Sarkozy stumbles. The Interior Minister has made inroads into the Le Pen electorate with his harsh rhetoric on illegal immigration and violence. President Chirac is indirectly helping M Le Pen by waging an underground campaign to undermine M Sarkozy, whom he loathes. He is encouraging Dominique de Villepin, the Prime Minister, and Michèle Alliot-Marie, the Defence Minister, to run against M Sarkozy. Both have indicated that they plan to do so.
As usual, the pariah status of M Le Pen has kept him out of the media, while polls have shown his popularity rising. “I am like Zorro,” he said. “Everyone knows that I am there but no one sees me.”
Renewed violence on the immigrant estates has been playing into the hands of M Le Pen. The spectre of another electoral hijacking has woken up the media this week as opinion polls reported support rising from 12 per cent to the higher teens.
Stéphane Rozès, director of CSA, which carried out yesterday’s poll for the newspaper Le Figaro, said that only one third of those saying that they would vote for M Le Pen represented extreme-right supporters. The rest were hardline conservatives and disillusioned voters who would vote in protest against the mainstream.