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Le Pen, father and daughter, bounce back

Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2011-01-10

They had been written off as a spent force and a mere hiccup in French political life. But if Sunday’s election results are anything to go by, the National Front’s ruling family has proved that there is plenty of bite left in France’s far right.

As French Socialists celebrated a resounding victory in the first round of regional elections on Sunday evening, two ominous voices from the other side of the political spectrum told a very different story and they both bore the Le Pen family name. 

In the sun-swept southern region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (PACA) and in grim Nord-Pas-de-Calais, France’s northernmost tip, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder and president of France’s extreme right National Front (FN), and his daughter, Marine, put up a surprisingly strong showing. 

At 81, the FN’s firebrand leader scooped 20.29% of the vote in his southern stronghold, closely trailing the Socialists and President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party. Up in the north, his daughter picked up 18.31%, beating the UMP into third. 

Throughout France, the National Front took 11.74% of the vote, behind third-placed Europe Ecologie (Green), but well in excess of their tally in last year’s European elections (6.34%) and the 2007 parliamentary polls (4.29%). 

The National Front cleared the 10% mark needed to contest the second round on March 21 in no fewer than 12 of France’s 22 mainland regions. With left-wing parties set to join forces in the next round, the presence of FN candidates is likely to cause further damage to the beleaguered UMP party, which has ruled out an alliance with the far right. 

For those, including Sarkozy, who thought the National Front had been confined to the history books, Sunday’s vote offered a chilling reminder that the dark horse of French politics for the past three decades is alive and kicking. 

‘Beaten, dead’ but still roaring 

“The National Front was declared beaten, dead and buried by the president," a beaming Le Pen senior told TV cameras on Sunday evening. "This shows that it is still a national force, and one that is destined to become greater still.” 

Soon after polls closed Sunday at 8 pm, the octogenarian leader who once described the Holocaust as a “detail of history” appeared on national television brandishing a campaign poster that read: “No to Islamism”. 

The poster, featuring France covered by minarets and draped in an Algerian flag, had prompted an official complaint by the Algerian government and had been ruled offensive by a French court. 

But in PACA, home to a large community of North African immigrants as well as descendants of North African immigrants, Le Pen’s decision to place Islamophobia and anti-immigration issues at the heart of his campaign appears to have struck a chord with a sizeable part of the electorate. 

The success of the National Front’s anti-immigration rhetoric is particularly embarrassing for Sarkozy, who has strived to starve the far right of votes by adopting a tough stance on illegal immigration and national security. Sarkozy attracted much criticism last year, when he initiated a controversial debate on national identity, with critics charging that the French president was adopting a populist rhetoric and pandering to anti-immigrant fears ahead of Sunday’s poll. 

According to Jean Chiche of the Paris-based CEVIPOF institute, it was “impossible to quantify” whether the intent of the national identity debate had backfired. But, he added, it certainly fuelled a “general climate” conducive to protest voting. 

The next generation takes on the economy 

More worryingly still for the UMP, Le Pen’s daughter Marine is starting to look like a match for her father. The 41-year-old vice-president of the Front National and member of the European parliament has proven to be a tireless campaigner and as fearsome a political opponent as her father and mentor. 

But in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, a region blighted by industrial decline, Marine Le Pen has fashioned her campaign into an indictment of the government’s economic policies. Where the campaign of Le Pen senior was all about immigration, his daughter’s was all about jobs. 

“The economic crisis has pushed the radical right back into the arms of its first love, the FN,” says Professor Pierre Bréchon of the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Grenoble. 

The same recipe very nearly handed Marine Le Pen a stunning victory last year in municipal elections in Hénin-Beaumont, a northern town plagued by widespread unemployment. Though she lost to the incumbent Socialists by a whisker, she succeeded in establishing her credentials as a legitimate successor at the helm of the National Front. 

If, as is increasingly likely, Marine Le Pen takes over from her father before the 2012 French presidential election, she will inherit a party on the verge of bankruptcy and deprived of much of its rank-and-file. 

But the stout and loud-spoken scion of France’s most divisive post-war politician has already proven her mettle by pushing aside would-be challengers in a notoriously macho party. And with the family brand still selling, few would bet against the National Party’s survival in years to come. 

Date created : 2010-03-15

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