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France: New Poll Shows Growing Support For Far-Right Ideas

New findings by a major polling organization show that more French people than ever before now agree with the ideas of the far-right National Front Party and its leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Paris, 31 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Since his sensational breakthrough into the run-off of last month's presidential elections, National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen has often boasted of what he calls the ongoing "Le Pen-ization of minds" in France. The publication this week (28 May) of a major new poll suggests he might not be exaggerating by much.

Sofres, an organization that has carried out similar inquiries since 1984, conducted the poll for the daily "Le Monde" and RTL Radio. It found that more than a quarter of the French say they are "rather or completely in accord" with the ideas of the far right, which includes a small splinter group -- the National Republican Movement led by Bruno Megret -- as well as the National Front.

In 1999, after Le Pen broke with Megret, only 11 percent of the French expressed sympathy for Le Pen's anti-immigrant, "France First" ideas. Now, only three years later, the percentage has jumped to 28, which "Le Monde" calls a "historic new high." The paper adds that the new poll's results confirm what it describes as the "solid anchoring" of the National Front in French public opinion.

The same day the results were announced, a former Socialist junior minister and senator called for the official ban of the National Front as a political party. "Ban it," argued Jean-Luc Melenchon, "or suffer the consequences."

But few, if any, other politicians were persuaded. Green leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit called Melenchon's suggestion "crazy" and "moronic." He said ironically that "all we have to do to live in a perfect world is to ban everything that is disagreeable." And in this week's Sofres poll, 60 percent of the French said that it would be "regrettable" not to give the National Front a legislative presence commensurate with its vote.

The poll found that elderly French people supported Le Pen more (30 percent) than those between 18 and 24 years old (19 percent). Only one in seven (14 percent) of those with higher education back him, while the less-educated are behind him solidly (46 percent). Le Pen is now supported by more than a third of French workers, shopkeepers, and artisans (34-35 percent). These are the same groups that largely voted communist for a quarter of a century after World War II.

According to the poll, Le Pen's positions in three areas attract the most support: personal security (40 percent), traditional values (35 percent), and his criticism of the political establishment (26 percent). "Le Monde" said Le Pen was clearly benefiting from what it called "the general atmosphere of great security concerns and conservatism."

RFE/RL spoke with French political scientist and polling analyst Jean-Luc Parodi. He believes that Le Pen's years spent highlighting growing violence and personal insecurity have in effect forced mainstream parties to change their positions.

"Perhaps the most important [effect of Le Pen's insistence] on the problems of security and security policy is that it has moved the discussion of these questions toward Le Pen's [point of view]. That has been true of the left's discourse for the past two or three years. It's true of [conservative President] Jacques Chirac, who has certainly sought to preserve his advantage in the realm of security. To a certain degree, both sides (the left and right) have joined together in what was once considered Le Pen's traditional discourse."

Parodi adds, however, that if the mainstream left and right have adopted some of Le Pen's positions on personal-security issues, they have done so without his xenophobic, racist language or overtones. Weighing his words carefully, the analyst says: "I don't have the impression there has been a huge rupture [in traditional mainstream discourse]. I have the impression, rather, of a small 'liberation' of a taboo that is not accompanied by any positive support for the National Front. That's what is most striking in many respects."

Parodi and other analysts expect the subject of personal security to play a major role in the upcoming legislative elections (9 and 16 June). Few of the more than 8,400 candidates for the National Assembly's 577 seats -- an average of 15 for each constituency -- can expect to gain much support without putting the question at the top of his or her election agenda.

The National Front leader is hoping for another sort of achievement when the final votes are counted on 16 June: enough voting clout to keep control of the National Assembly out of the hands of President Jacques Chirac, his chief political adversary and personal enemy for 20 years.