In French voting, ultranationalist Le Pen shows his party is still in the game

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 27, 2010

MARSEILLE, FRANCE -- For Jean-Marie Le Pen, it was a moment of personal triumph, recognition that his far-right National Front is still a force to be reckoned with and that the ultranationalist movement remains a landmark in the French political landscape.

France, Le Pen harangued regional leaders, is being weakened by Third World immigrants under President Nicolas Sarkozy's feckless policies while the country's budget deficits are ballooning out of control and the expanded European Union is condemned to collapse under its own weight.

"All the elements of destabilization, and even of civil war, are falling into place," he warned darkly.

Le Pen, his trademark silver mane brushed straight back and his face as pink as ever, issued his analysis Friday while presiding over the Provence regional assembly, in the southern city of Marseille, which held its opening session five days after a regional election in which the National Front slate, with Le Pen at its head, won about 23 percent of the vote.

The score here was part of a nationwide comeback in which the National Front won nearly 10 percent of the overall vote and captured 118 seats in 12 of the 22 regions in mainland France. Le Pen's daughter and likely successor, Marine Le Pen, was one of the National Front's top scorers, with 22 percent of the vote in the northern French region of Nord-Pas de Calais.

The National Front's showing, here in Marseille and nationally, remained a minority of the vote and did not go beyond its successes in the 1980s and 1990s, when the anti-immigrant group pushed its way into the thick of French politics. But it dispelled a widely accepted notion that Sarkozy, with his conservative stands in the 2007 presidential election, had siphoned off a large percentage of National Front voters.

The millions of French people upset over immigration and the increasing visibility of Muslims in Europe, it turned out, still find their traditionalist values in Le Pen's France-first views, rather than in Sarkozy's business-oriented conservatism. The party's success, Le Pen told reporters, was due in large part to "resentment against Sarkozy" and his failure to fulfill promises he made during the 2007 campaign.

"The coming times are going to be perilous," Le Pen told the assembly. His party's improved showing, he added, "was an undeniable sign that traditional political parties are being disavowed."

Le Pen's time presiding over the assembly Friday was short, granted only because, at 81, he is the doyen of the Regional Council. Michel Vauzelle, a Socialist whose slate scored about 44 percent in the election, took over as soon as a vote was held to reelect him as regional president.

But the opportunity to make a speech from the president's chair, despite an air of last hurrah, marked a moment of revenge for Le Pen. The European Parliament last year modified its internal rules to prevent a similar situation, humiliating the veteran nationalist and emphasizing the accepted wisdom that his momentum was spent.

Ronald Perdomo, a longtime right-wing figure in Marseille who broke with Le Pen to found his own party, said the National Front has gained back support in southern France in part because of concern over plans to build a Grand Mosque for the Marseille area's estimated 200,000 Muslims. The concern, he said, was magnified by Sarkozy's "grand debate" over national identity, which encouraged concern about immigrants and Muslims, and the government's controversial plans to restrict the wearing of full-face veils by Muslim women in France.

Set aside pending the regional elections, debate on the veil controversy is about to flare again, and Le Pen is ready to play a role. He has repeatedly said the solution is to enforce France's existing laws in such a way that women cannot wear a full veil in public. Several government figures also have suggested that may be the only solution compatible with the constitution.

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