New Times, 10 April 1998
It is tempting simply to cheer last week's decision by a Versailles tribunal to bar Jean-Marie Le Pen from public office. The president of the far-right National Front, found guilty of physically attacking a Socialist candidate during last year's French general election campaign, is a thug whose racist message has poisoned French public life for more than a decade. The two-year ban means that he will be unable to continue as a regional councillor in Provence-Côte d'Azur and is unlikely to be allowed to stand again for the European Parliament in 1999. The ruling could be the beginning of the end of his long and inglorious political career.
Yet if Le Pen appears to be on the way out, the same cannot be said of his party. In last month's regional elections, the National Front took 15 per cent of the popular vote, winning the balance of power between the left and the mainstream right in large swathes of France. More important, in five of the 22 regional councils its councillors struck deals with the mainstream right parties, the Gaullist RPR and the centre-right Union for French Democracy (UDF), to ensure the election of right-wing regional presidents.
President Jacques Chirac, a Gaullist, immediately disowned the agreements, appearing on television to denounce the Front as "racist and xenophobic". Last week, he started consultations with politicians and constitutional experts on plans for changing the proportional representation system used for regional elections. His goal is to come up with an electoral system that ensures the Front will not in future win seats.
But he is engaging in damage-limitation. The regional council deals, the first significant agreements between the Front and "respectable" politicians, showed that a large section of the mainstream right is no longer prepared to treat Le Pen's party as a pariah.
The main reason for this – apart from desperation for power – is the rise to prominence in the Front of Bruno Mégret, Le Pen's deputy and chief strategist, who is now almost certain to succeed him as leader sooner rather than later. A smooth-talking former Gaullist, Mégret has made a point of toning down the Front's crude anti-immigrant rhetoric in favour of a more reasonable-sounding appeal for lower taxes, more police and the defence of French 'cultural identity'. The deal offered by the Front in the regional councils was votes in return for support for a six-point programme that did not include racist policies.
The changes in the Front's image are cosmetic, as Mégret himself admitted in a remarkably candid interview with the Daily Telegraph last week. But the degree to which a section of the mainstream right fell for them is remarkable. If only briefly, it gave the Front's racism and xenophobia unprecedented legitimacy.
It would be wrong to exaggerate the prospects of a far-right take-over in France. The short-term effects of the events of the past month have been to demoralise the RPR and UDF and to strengthen the moral authority and popularity of the governing Socialists and their allies. In the longer run, the likelihood is that electoral reform, consolidation of the centre-right and – with luck – falling unemployment will combine to squeeze the Front's support.
But it would also be wrong to be complacent. Mégret believes that, by striking accords with the mainstream right, the Front can take up to 30 per cent of the vote, becoming the majority force on the French right. That this does not appear quite as incredible as it did a month ago is itself a cause for concern.