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Europe: France's National Front Riding High - An Analysis

  • Joel Blocker



Prague, 1 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - In Strasbourg today, several hundred weary French men and women staged a symbolic "cleaning up" of the city. More than a clean-up, however, the city that hosts the European Union's Parliament, the Council of Europe and its Human-Rights Court -- and likes to call itself "the heart of Europe" -- needed a giant aspirin pill to rid itself of a collective hang-over after three days of intoxicating and classically French Left-Right verbal warfare. So did the French national media, which talked about little else for 72 hours.

Strasbourg's volunteer clean-up crew were the remnants of the tens of thousands, largely of the French (Socialist and Communist) Left, who came to the Alsacian capital to protest the Easter-weekend congress of the nation's increasingly popular extreme-Right National Front party. The French demonstrators were supported by a few thousand more, of similar political persuasion, from other European countries. Most of the protesters yesterday left for home with good consciences, convinced they had struck a blow against the Front's ultra-nationalist, racist, anti-immigrant program.

But their conservative adversaries, who govern France and dominate the Parliament, were convinced of the contrary. Anti-Front as much as the Left, the French Center and moderate Right had refused to take part in the Strasbourg demonstrations. Afterwards, their spokesmen said that all the protesters had achieved was to provide free advertising for the Front and its leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, one of whose favorite mottoes is said to be: "There is no such thing as bad publicity."

Who was right and who was wrong, the Left or the Right? For most non-partisan analysts, the question itself was wrongly put. They asked, rather: How much had the Front and Le Pen benefited from being in the national -- and, to some extent, European -- spotlight for several days? Most answered: a lot.

The analysts noted that, even before the Strasbourg congress, Le Pen was already riding an electoral wave. Seven weeks ago, the Front won the mayoralty of Vitrolles, the fourth southern town or city -- after Marignane, Orange and Toulon -- to fall until its control. Nice, the largest city in southeastern France, is run by an ex-Front member who nonetheless practices the party's anti-immigrant principles. In fact, France's southeastern "Midi" with its large immigrant communities and unemployment rates higher than the national average of almost 13 percent, has become the National Front's base, with proportionately more party sympathizers there than almost anywhere else in France.

Anywhere else, that is, other than Strasbourg -- where, despite a Socialist mayor, one out of four ballots cast in the last general elections (1995) went to the Front, compared to one out of seven nationally. That's why Le Pen, the analysts say, decided to hold the congress in Europe's "heart," and to invite to it representatives of 16 continental far-Right parties. Groups from Spain, Belgium, Germany and Slovakia were particularly conspicuous in Strasbourg.

The only European extreme-Right group n-o-t officially represented at Strasbourg was Austria's Freedom Party, led by populist Joerg Haider, which won more than a quarter of the votes in the country's balloting for the European Parliament five months ago. The reason for the Freedom Party's absence was tactical rather than principled: Haider does not want to jeopardize his group's chances of taking control of the Austrian Government by risking being perceived as associated with the "extremist" National Front of France.

The Front congress' chief purpose was to launch work on a party battle plan for France's next parliamentary elections, scheduled in 12 months' time. Le Pen predicted it will win up to 20 seats, as compared to the single one it currently holds. But he repeated his oft-stated plea for a proportional-representation rather than first-past-the-line election, which would likely give the Front many more deputies. (France is one of the few existing "republics" that allows its ruling politicians to set the rules for each coming national ballot.)

Le Pen, whose gift for rhetoric is undisputed, also used his Strasbourg platform to urge other European far-Rightists to join forces with the Front. He spoke of "a form of political cooperation" among all the groups present in Strasbourg. "Why not," he asked, "call this 'Euro-Nat' --a grouping of the Europe of nationalists, of the Europe of nationals?"

Le Pen's appeal was immediately answered -- by a Slovak sympathizer who delivered a speech at the congress and was due to meet with Le Pen today. Jan Slota, the Chairman of the Slovak National Party -- a junior partner in Premier Vladimir Meciar's coalition Government -- told the Austrian Press Agency (APA) yesterday in Strasbourg that he wanted to hold a conference of "European nationally oriented parties" in Slovakia. Slota, who is known internationally for his hostility toward Romanies, said he would undertake talks on holding the conference with the leaders of the other 15 European far-Right groups. He also said that Le Pen would visit Slovakia later this month.









Strasbourg, April 1 (NCA/Joel Blocker-Prague) - In Strasbourg today, several hundred weary French men and women staged a symbolic "cleaning up" of the city. More than a clean-up, however, the city that hosts the European Union's Parliament, the Council of Europe and its Human-Rights Court --and likes to call itself "the heart of Europe"-- needed a giant aspirin pill to rid itself of a collective hang-over after three days of intoxicating and classically French Left-Right verbal warfare. So did the French national media, which talked about little else for 72 hours.

Strasbourg's volunteer clean-up crew were the remnants of the tens of thousands, largely of the French (Socialist and Communist) Left, who came to the Alsacian capital to protest the Easter-weekend (Mar. 29-31) congress of the nation's increasingly popular extreme-Right National Front party. The French demonstrators were supported by a few thousand more, of similar political persuasion, from other European countries. Most of the protesters yesterday left for home with good consciences, convinced they had struck a blow against the Front's ultra-nationalist, racist, anti-immigrant program.

But their conservative adversaries, who govern France and dominate the Parliament, were convinced of the contrary. Anti-Front as much as the Left, the French Center and moderate Right had refused to take part in the Strasbourg demonstrations. Afterwards, their spokesmen said that all the protesters had achieved was to provide free advertising for the Front and its leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, one of whose favorite mottoes is said to be: "There is no such thing as bad publicity."

Who was right and who was wrong, the Left or the Right? For most non-partisan analysts, the question itself was wrongly put. They asked, rather: H-o-w m-u-c-h had the Front and Le Pen benefited from being in the national --and, to some extent, European-- spotlight for several days? Most answered: a lot.

The analysts noted that, even before the Strasbourg congress, Le Pen was already riding an electoral wave. Seven weeks ago, the Front won the mayoralty of Vitrolles (SAY: VEE-TROLL'), the fourth southern town or city --after Marignane, Orange and Toulon-- to fall until its control. Nice, the largest city in southeastern France, is run by an ex-Front member who nonetheless practices the party's anti-immigrant principles. In fact, France's southeastern "Midi" (SAY: MEE-DEE'), with its large immigrant communities and unemployment rates higher than the national average of almost 13 percent, has become the National Front's base, with proportionately more party sympathizers there than almost anywhere else in France.

Anywhere else, that is, other than Strasbourg --where, despite a Socialist mayor, one out of four ballots cast in the last general elections (1995) went to the Front, compared to one out of seven nationally. That's why Le Pen, the analysts say, decided to hold the congress in Europe's "heart," and to invite to it representatives of 16 continental far-Right parties. Groups from Spain, Belgium, Germany and Slovakia were particularly conspicuous in Strasbourg.

The only European extreme-Right group n-o-t officially represented at Strasbourg was Austria's Freedom Party, led by populist Joerg Haider, which won more than a quarter of the votes in the country's balloting for the European Parliament five months ago. The reason for the Freedom Party's absence was tactical rather than principled: Haider does not want to jeopardize his group's chances of taking control of the Austrian Government by risking being perceived as associated with the "extremist" National Front of France.
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