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Friday, 5 April, 2002, 10:26 GMT 11:26 UK
Profile: Jean-Marie Le Pen
Le Pen
Immigration is the burning issue for Mr Le Pen
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By Hugh Schofield in Paris

Jean-Marie Le Pen would like it to be known that reports of his political demise have been grossly exaggerated.

Massive immigration has only just begun. It is the biggest problem facing France, Europe and probably the world. We risk being submerged

Le Pen
It is true, his far-right National Front (FN) suffered a damaging split in 1998.

But Mr Le Pen says, his message is as relevant today as it was when he first founded the party 30 years ago.

The violence in the suburbs goes from bad to worse, he says, the European superstate has reduced the French presidency to a kind of regional governorship, and small businesses are being driven to the wall.

With about 12% in the polls, he is not far short of his 1995 exploit when 4.5 million people voted for him in the first round.

Who knows? Maybe this year will be the great breakthrough.

Veteran politician

Mr Le Pen was born in 1928 in the Brittany town of La Trinite-sur-Mer.

Le Pen (far left) arrives in Paris to present the 500 endorsements needed to stand in Frances presidential election.
Le Pen has already run three times for the presidency

As the adulatory comic-strip biography available at the party headquarters explains, he joined the Foreign Legion in 1954, seeing action in Indochina and Algeria.

His political career began in 1956, when he became a deputy for the shop-keepers' party of Pierre Poujade.

In 1965 he helped run the election campaign of far-right candidate Jean-Louis Tixier-Vignancour, and in 1972 he set up the FN.

With his dire warnings of the threat to French life from North African immigration, he pushed his share of the presidential vote up from 0.74% in 1974 to 14% in 1988 and 15% in 1995.

'The great treachery'

In the meantime, the parliamentary fortunes of the FN rose and fell.

Bruno Megret
Megret sends Le Pen into paroxysms of contempt

It won 35 seats in 1986 after the late President Francois Mitterrand cynically changed the voting system in order to discomfit the mainstream right, but today it has only one.

And in 1998 came the great treachery.

His heir-apparent - backroom technocrat Bruno Megret - launched a bid for power.

He was swiftly ousted, but the party has never fully recovered. Any mention of the scheming arch-traitor brings the party leader out in a paroxysm of contempt.

Mr Le Pen is associated in the minds of those who do not agree with him with bigotry, bullying and belligerence.

In 1987 he described the holocaust as a "detail of history", and five years ago he fell foul of the law for an election punch-up with a Socialist rival.

That almost cost him his seat in the European parliament.

Swan song

In this election he is campaigning on familiar themes: he wants 200,000 new prison places, the abolition of inheritance tax so that small businesses can pass from father to son, a renegotiation of European treaties.

French police escort a refugee woman with a baby from a bus
Le Pen fears being submerged by immigrants

But immigration is still the key.

"Massive immigration has only just begun. It is the biggest problem facing France, Europe and probably the world. We risk being submerged," he said in a newspaper interview.

With the French public expected to deliver an electoral V-sign to the establishment in the first round of the vote this month, Mr Le Pen is looking a good bet for third place behind President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.

He is an instantly recognisable national figure with a distinctive message that is still getting through.

But Mr Le Pen's problem is that at 73 he knows that this is almost certainly his final presidential race.

He also knows that the FN depends to a fatal degree on his own pugnacious and highly articulate personality.

Without him the party is a feeble collection of second-rate nostalgics.

The former parachutist may still be riding high, but time is running out. This will be his bellowed swan song.

See also:

15 Mar 02 | Europe
Le Pen's election bid in doubt
26 Jan 01 | Europe
Le Pen parliament ban lifted
24 Jan 99 | Europe
French National Front splits
15 Dec 98 | Europe
National Front row deepens
08 Mar 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: France
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