French Far-Right Political Movement Struggles for Survival


Lisa Bryant

French political parties are hosting a series of meetings, in the coming weeks, to mark the new political season.  That includes the National Front Party - the most popular far-right movement of any major European Union nation.  Six years ago, the anti-immigration party shocked the nation when its leader placed second in presidential elections.  But, as Lisa Bryant reports from Paris, if the party is down, it is not out of the French political landscape.

These should be good times for the National Front party.  Conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy is struggling in the polls, the economy is stumbling and illegal immigration - a key campaign theme for the far-right French party which wants to end immigration altogether - also worries many French.

Instead, the National Front is split internally and struggling to survive.  It received slightly more than 10 percent of the vote in last year's presidential elections - one of its poorest showings in recent years.  In this year's regional elections, it failed to capture a single seat.

Nonna Meyer, a political sociology analyst at Paris-based research center CEVIPOV, says the Front's octogenarian leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, seems like a has-been.

"There is not so much opportunity, at the present time, for Jean-Marie Le Pen - even though ideally the context is for him because there is discontent, dissatisfaction with the economic situation," said Meyer.   

The party is also about $13 million in debt from paying off campaign expenses of its candidates.  It has slashed its staff and put Le Pen's bullet-proof car and the party headquarters up for sale. This month, it found a buyer for the building, located in the affluent Paris suburb of Saint Cloud - a Chinese university which is reported to be paying up to $22 million.

During an interview at his family home, Le Pen refused to admit defeat - or retirement any time soon.   

Mr. Le Pen says politics is like sports - there are ups and downs for all parties.  And, he points to low periods for France's Socialist and Communist parties.  He says his National Front party is the only one representing true French nationalism.

At 80 years old, Mr. Le Pen is the oldest party leader in France.  His political life has surpassed many of his competitors.  He is still vigorous and combative, but somewhat mellower than in the past.  One far-right rival, Bruno Megret, who split from Le Pen a few years ago, criticized him this year as being too politically correct.

But Mr. Le Pen has not softened when it comes to many of his favorite themes - like cracking down on immigration and crime.  And, criticizing French President Nicolas Sarkozy.  He says Mr. Sarkozy is a disappointment who has failed to keep his promises.  He accuses the president of being too European and of deceiving his electorate.

Mr. Le Pen was re-elected as his party's leader last November - and he does not appear to be contemplating retirement any time soon.  The Front is divided over who will succeed him - either his long-time deputy and fellow hard-liner Bruno Megret or Le Pen's youngest daughter, Marine, who has injected a note of youth and softness to the party.

"The problems is he's getting old - their leader Jean-Marie Le Pen.  And, the party is completely divided on his succession - will it be his daughter, Marine Le Pen, who has appeal of the media?  But the old party members contest her leadership, so that's a real problem - what's going to happen there.  And, also for quite a while the party has been dwindling down to nothing.  And, there is a moment when you cannot win elections when there is no staff behind you, when the activists are gone," said analyst Nonna Meyer.

The National Front has faced hard times before.  It split in the late 1990s.  Le Pen himself has stirred anger in France for controversial remarks - like calling the Holocaust a "detail" in World War II, 20 years ago.  He got heavily fined for that remark.  He sparked new furor this year by repeating it. Critics also say he is racist - which he denies. 

Across Europe, far-right parties have mixed support.  They maintain a presence in countries like Switzerland, the Netherlands and Austria.  Recent polls show the far right Sweden Democrats will earn the four percent of votes needed to enter the Swedish parliament in the next elections, in 2010.

In France, Le Pen believes his party's values - of family and patriotism - will always resonate.

But Meyer believes French are looking elsewhere. They may be disenchanted with the government - but that may be translated into rejecting politics altogether - or being attracted by the rising young star of the far left, Olivier Besancenot.

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