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Thursday, 18 April, 2002, 17:44 GMT 18:44 UK
Le Pen on a roll
Jean-Marie Le Pen
Le Pen blames Chirac for letting socialists into office
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By Hugh Schofield in Paris

In the closing stages of the campaign for the first round of France's presidential election, the veteran far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen has the bit between the teeth.

The insecurity that threatens to drag our country into the abyss has one principal cause - immigration

Jean-Marie Le Pen
Polls show his score in third place edging up to around 14% of the vote, while support for the two frontrunners - President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin - slips back.

If in the remaining couple of days Jospin continues to drift down to the 17% mark, and Le Pen continues to drift upwards, who knows? Perhaps the lacklustre election will produce a surprise after all.

As he points out, conventional surveys tend to underestimate his support because many voters appear to be ashamed to admit they vote for him.

In 1995 the pre-election polls put him at 12%. On the day he won 15%.

Home turf

At a rally in Marseille this week, the 73-year-old former paratrooper was in fighting form, confounding predictions made only a few months ago that he is a spent force.

Le Pen's supporters in Marseille
The audience hoots and roars
In an impassioned hour-long diatribe, he strides around the platform at the centre of an indoor sports arena, delighting his 3,000 supporters with coruscating attacks on Chirac and bitter analysis of the "scourge" of immigration.

"The insecurity that threatens to drag our country into the abyss has one principle cause - immigration," he bellows.

"What began as a tool to keep down the cost of labour has become an instrument of colonisation!"

This is Le Pen's home turf. With its large population of "pieds noirs" - the returned Algerian settlers - and its wide ethnic mix, the Mediterranean port regularly puts in a 20% vote for the far-right.

Brilliant performer

At a time when the country is increasingly obsessed with the problem of rising crime - and increasingly exasperated with the ruling political establishment - Le Pen is succeeding again to articulate public anxieties.

Much of his appeal rests on the fact that he is a brilliant public performer.

We must limit the influx and weed out the ones who are delinquents

Le Pen supporter Antoine Boyer
His fiery monologue in Marseille is delivered on the hoof - a far cry from the stuffy addresses of most candidates - and he has the audience by turns roaring with laughter, and hooting with derision at the mention of President Chirac.

"Who is the man most useful to the left in France?" he asks, and "Chirac!" the crowd roars back.

It is Le Pen's belief that France has a natural right-wing majority and it is only because Chirac - leader of the mainstream right - refuses to deal with his Front National (FN) that the Socialists have ever held power.

Crime debate

But it is about crime and immigration that his mainly aging supporters have come to listen.

"We are not against immigrants themselves. We are against the policy of immigration," says Antoine Boyer, 77, a member of the World War II resistance and like Le Pen a foreign legionnaire in France's wars in Indochina and Algeria.

"In my town of Beaucaire we are 14,000 and 46% of them are North Africans. I am not saying we have to expel them, but we must limit the influx - and weed out the ones who are delinquents," he says.

The way crime has moved to the centre of the political debate in France has played into Le Pen's hands.

And the post-11 September mood - in which for the first time even politicians of the left speak of the disproportionate number of crimes committed by North African Arabs - also helps.

He is enjoying saying "I told you so," and watching his poll ratings rise.

See also:

19 Mar 02 | Europe
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