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France: Extreme Right Gains Big Win in Local Elections

Prague, 23 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The emergence of France's extreme-right National Front Party as the decisive force in regional political battles between the Left and the moderate Right has overshadowed yesterday's second-round of voting in the country's cantonal elections.

In yesterday's balloting the French Left, which has governed nationally for the past 10 months, again cut into the moderate Right's hold on local offices. But many analysts say that the big winner of the country's local elections --the cantonals plus a single round of regional voting eight days ago-- is the ultra-nationalistic, anti-immigrant National Front, led by Jean-Marie Le Pen.

The Front scored no more than its usual 15 percent of the vote both yesterday and the week before. But it has now succeeded in turning its role as arbiter between the two mainstream groups --neither of which scored more than 36 percent in the regional balloting-- into a wedge that is precipitating swift changes among the Gaullist and, particularly, the Center-Right parties that make up the moderate Right. Local conservative leaders have been forced to choose between cooperating with the xenophobic Front or allowing the Left to win and, for the first time, several of them have openly disobeyed their national leaders and opted for electoral deals with the Front.

This had two immediate, important consequences. First, French conservatives woke up today to find themselves in utter disarray and division, with about 30 percent of them --according to public-opinion polls-- backing electoral cooperation with the Front and the majority staunchly against. Second, the Front was suddenly respectable because it had succeeded in outsmarting mainstream conservative leaders led by President Jacques Chirac in making itself indispensable to moderate-Right victories on the local level.

For analysts, the event that triggered these seismic shocks was last Friday's meetings of the newly elected regional councils, when five Center-Right candidates allowed themselves to be elected council president with open National Front support. On French television (private channel TF1) last night, historian Rene Raymond summed up many analysts' views: "What we are watching is the disintegration of the (mainstream) Right wing," he said. "These (local) elections will have national ramifications. Now that the wall that separated the National Front from the other parties has fallen, anything is possible."

Actually, the wall between the extremist Front and both the conservatives and the Left had been breached both in national elections last year and in 1995 --but not so flagrantly as occurred during Friday's deal-making after the regional vote. Last year, the Left was able to take national power because Front voters followed Le Pen's order and opted for the Left candidates in the second round of parliamentary voting in some 50 national constituencies. That gave the Left its current majority in the National Assembly. Two years before, however, most of the Front's 1.5 million voters chose to vote for Chirac, rather than his Socialist opponent --and current Prime Minister-- Lionel Jospin in the second round of presidential elections. That gave the Gaullist leader his victory margin.

But it was the wheeling and dealing over the regional council presidencies last week that legitimated the Front's role as France's political king-maker. And it was n-o-t the 69-year-old Le Pen who conceived the successful strategy, but his number-two man, rival and probable successor Bruno Maigret, who is 20 years younger. Several months ago, Maigret declared that "the regional elections will provide the ideal occasion to show that French politics is now divided into three main blocks: the Right, the Left and us." Even allowing for his political hyperbole, Maigret's prophecy has now been realized.

Just how much Maigret's strategy has changed the French political landscape should be clearer later today, when four more regional councils meet to elect their presidents. The four include France's two most populous regions, one around Paris known as the Ile de France, the other a southern area around Marseilles, where the Front generally scores higher than elsewhere. On Saturday, Le Pen publicly offered the moderate Right the Ile de France presidency in return for its support of a Front candidate to lead the southern region. Conservative party leaders indignantly rejected the offer, saying that any such trade-off with the Front would insult voters. But it's now clear that national conservative leaders no longer control many of their grass-roots militants and local luminaries. That's why historian Raymond may be right to suggest that today "anything is possible" in France.