Prague, 10 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - France's extreme-Right National Front party has won another important electoral battle with the country's political establishment. In a run-off vote yesterday, the openly anti-immigrant, anti-Arab and anti-Semitic Front led by Jean-Marie Le Pen won the mayoralty of the southern town of Vitrolles despite a united effort by mainline French conservative as well as Left parties to defeat it.
Vitrolles is the fourth southern French urban area to elect a Front mayor. Over the past two years, the party has also gained control of Marignane --like Vitrolles, a bleak, economically depressed suburb of Marseilles-- Orange and the French naval port of Toulon. All four urban areas have large immigrant populations and unemployment rates well above the national average of 12.7 percent.
Le Pen immediately hailed the victory as a harbinger of greater things to come. Interviewed on French radio last night, he asked rhetorically: "Who can say that the National Front is not capable of becoming France's first party? If you judge by the Vitrolles (result)," he said, "you realize that's possible (because the French have come to understand) the shortcomings of those who lead them...(especially their) failure to resolve major problems like unemployment and immigration."
The Front's campaign in Vitrolles played up the need for law, order and rectitude in a town whose Socialist mayor, Jean-Jacques Anglade, was under judicial examination for alleged graft and bribery. That was enough to offset visits to the town last week by Socialist leader Lionel Jospin and Communist Party chief Robert Hue. Flanked by film stars and Jewish community leaders, the two Left leaders appealed for a vote "against racism and hatred." Conservative Prime Minister Alain Juppe also supported Anglade in what he called "a Republican front against the extremists." The conservative candidate, who had come in third in the first round of balloting, was persuaded to drop out of the race.
It was all to no avail. National Front candidate Catherine Magret was actually no more than an open front for her husband Bruno Magret, Le Pen's number two man and likely successor, and she won on that basis. When her victory was assured last night, she said: "It is (Bruno) who conducted the battle, it is he who is the victor."
Bruno Magret had actually lost the Vitrolles mayoralty to Anglade two years ago by 353 votes. But because of a technicality -- Magret has spent more money than allowed on his campaign -- a judge ordered a new election while at the same time prohibiting Bruno Magret from seeking any political office until after a new mayor was chosen. It is a secret to no-one that Bruno will now effectively run Vitrolles, even if it's Catherine who will sign documents and officiate at ceremonies.
The Magrets will almost surely follow the political pattern established by Front mayors in the three cities they run in the area of France's southeast known as the "Midi." That means regulations favoring "French" rather than immigrant employment, occasional rough treatment of non-French citizens, bookstores and municipal libraries publicizing Front literature, and anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic acts that are just within the law. In none of the three towns have these policies raised any public outcry.
"The National Front has become banal," a Toulon resident told an inquiring journalist not long ago. "The population thinks that what (the Front) does is just fine." The man talking was Ahmed Touati, a former municipal archivist who was made a street cleaner after refusing to collaborate with the Front.
The Midi includes the Riviera and the region of Provence that has long been known for its lavender, its bouillabaisse and its easy-going inhabitants. British and American as well as French writers have all romanticized Provence over the years. But with one of the highest illiteracy as well as unemployment rates in the country, Provence is no longer that romantic or easy-going. It is, in fact, the National Front's base because the party has more adherents there than anywhere else in France.
Could Le Pen's boast become reality and the National Front outdraw other parties throughout France in the general elections now scheduled to take place in 14 months' time? Analysts do not think that's likely. But they do believe that the Front will benefit greatly if France continues to suffer high unemployment and low economic growth.
The analysts say that private polls conducted both by the ruling conservatives and the Left opposition now show the Front gaining several percentage points over its usual 13 to 15 percent of the vote. The analysts explain that would translate into a substantial Front bloc in the French National Assembly in the Spring of 1998, and therefore an important presence on the national scene. The National Front, the analysts conclude, is gaining additional strength with each passing month. They point to the Vitrolles result as the most recent, and perhaps the most powerful, example of that political reality.