French Election Is Key Test For Le Pen

Jamey Keaten, AP, April 16, 2007

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Le Pen ended up roundly beaten in 2002, and is unlikely to repeat his first-round success in Sunday’s ballot. But with polls giving him up to 16 percent of the vote, it’s clear his France-first slogans still resonate.

In fact, the issues preoccupying the Frenchjobs, immigration, integrating a large and restive Muslim minorityhave catapulted many of Le Pen’s views into the mainstream, with leading candidates both left and right co-opting elements of his ideas.

It’s a phenomenon seen across Europe: Deep anxieties over security and unemployment have fed a sharp shift to the right, forcing mainstream politicians to embrace policies that just a few years ago would have seemed the exclusive terrain of ultra-nationalist forces.

These policies mainly aim to reassert the primacy of the home culture with language requirements, citizenship tests and tougher criteria for prospective immigrants.

In the Netherlands, a powerful nationalist movement sprang up around charismatic Pim Fortuyn and won a place in the coalition, only to fall apart after Fortuyn was assassinated in 2002. But his ideas live on in the citizenship tests and deportations of asylum-seekers which are now Dutch policy.

In elections in October last year, Austria’s two rightist parties won more than 15 percent of the votefar short of the stunning 26.9 percent that firebrand Joerg Haider received in 1999 but enough to trouble the centrist majority.

The anti-immigration Danish People’s Party, formed only 12 years ago, is the third largest faction in Denmark’s parliament. Far-right parties also made electoral strides last year in Sweden and Belgium.

In Germany, far-right parties remain a fringe movement, but hold seats on three regional legislatures in the formerly Communist east. Officials say crimes by far-right groups and attacks against foreigners rose 16 percent last year.

Tony Blair, Britain’s center-left prime minister, campaigned two years ago on the slogan “Your country’s borders protected,” while his conservative rivals proposed HIV and tuberculosis tests for immigrants. A fringe nationalist party scored well in local elections last May.

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In France, 78-year-old Le Pen is gloating as front-runners Nicolas Sarkozy on the right and Segolene Royal on the left hoist two of his pet issuesimmigration and national identityto center stage.

Thirty percent of respondents in a poll by TNS Sofres published in December said they agreed with Le Pen’s positionsthe highest figure since 1996.

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Le Pen’s National Front today claims 75,000 members, and spokesman Thibaut de la Tocnay says membership shot up by several thousand after the November 2005 riots in immigrant-heavy suburbs.

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[Le Pen’s] call for France to pull out of the European Union and its common currency, the euro, appears unworkable, but finds sympathy among those who think the country’s immersion into the 27-nation bloc has diminished it.

But he has also been convicted of racist and anti-Semitic utterances.

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Since he founded the party in 1972, much of its appeal has been Le Pen himself. He gained nearly five million votes in the first round of the 2002 election. No other far-right candidate has ever earned double-digit percentages in a presidential vote: He has three times.

“Le Pen dreams of himself as the remedy; he knows he’s just a symptom, a thermometer measuring France’s fever,” wrote editorialist Renaud Dely in left-leaning daily Liberation. “The worse France is, the better Le Pen is.”

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Young party members on a poster run in this conservative eastern French city said they are regularly harassed for their views. The group’s leader, Pascal Baum, claimed his party affiliation once cost him a job.

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