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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 November 2006, 20:26 GMT
Le Pen struggles to find backers

Jean-Marie Le Pen during a press conference at his party headquarters in Saint Cloud outside Paris
Le Pen still enjoys substantial support
The French far-right leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, says he is having problems gathering enough signatures to stand for the French presidency next April.

Candidates must collect 500 signatures from elected local officials in at least 30 different French regions.

Mr Le Pen accused mainstream parties of exerting pressure on the local officials not to endorse him.

He shocked France during the last elections in 2002 when he went through to the second round of voting.

Mr Le Pen, 78, has until March to gather the signatures.

But age has not diminished the far-right leader's fiery rhetoric, says the BBC's Caroline Wyatt in Paris.

Secrecy call

At a press conference, Mr Le Pen was keen to portray himself as the victim of an "oligarch-like conspiracy between the parties in place and the state institutions to stop the candidate of national opposition from being present".

He said local officials were hesitating to endorse him because they knew their names would be made public and were scared to be seen supporting his National Front.

"I ask mayors to have the courage to carry out the duty assigned to them by the law," Mr Le Pen told reporters at his party headquarters near Paris.

"This is about the fate of the country," he said, calling on the mayors to "overcome their reservations or fears".

He also asked French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin to change the rules so his supporters could remain anonymous - an idea the prime minister has rejected.

Yet it seems Mr Le Pen will have no problem persuading a significant number of people to vote for him again, says our Paris correspondent.

Opinion polls show that between 11 and 15% of the French would back him as president.

The far right is attracting many in France who worry about high unemployment and immigration, as well as some who are deeply disillusioned with the French political elite, our correspondent says.

Some fear Mr Le Pen could go through to the second round next time too, especially if the centre-right fields more than one serious candidate, she says.

The governing UMP party is expected to back Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy as its official candidate, although President Jacques Chirac has not yet ruled out standing for a third term in office.

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