The far right-wing National Front party made a noisy entrance into French parliamentary life today, deliberately attracting public attention at the opening session of the newly elected National Assembly.
As the deputies took their seats in the assembly, cameramen and journalists crowded around Jean-Marie Le Pen, 57, a bulky former paratrooper who founded the National Front in 1972. The front, which made opposition to immigration the centerpiece of its campaign, is widely regarded here as the principal victor in last month's election.
Under Le Pen's leadership, the National Front's vote rose from 0.29 per cent in the last parliamentary election in 1981 to 9.80 per cent this time. With 35 deputies, the front has as many seats in the 577-member National Assembly as the Communist Party, which was the largest political party in France immediately after World War II.
In a series of impromptu interviews in the corridors of the assembly, Le Pen made clear that his party would vigorously oppose the mainstream right-wing coalition that won a slim two-seat majority in the election. But he also played what political commentators here have called the "respectability card," insisting that the front would respect the "rules of democracy."
The far right's potential for disruption became apparent at the beginning of the session when a Le Pen supporter, Jean-Claude Martinez, made a series of procedural objections to the election of government deputies. The chamber dissolved into uproar as a Communist spokesman tried to grab the microphone with rival points of order and other deputies rattled their tabletops in disapproval.
The size of the National Front contingent allows the party to form an official group in the new Assembly -- with guaranteed speaking time, representation on parliamentary commissions and a say in drawing up the agenda. As the leader of a group, Le Pen enjoys such special privileges as a chauffeur-driven car and a staff paid under the regular parliamentary budget.
The front scored another symbolic point by providing the acting president for today's opening session. The honor should have gone to the oldest deputy, Marcel Dassault, 94, an aircraft tycoon and concentration camp survivor, but he was ill. So it went instead to Edouard-Frederic Dupont, 83, who joined the front recently after a career that ranged from supporting the pro-fascist Vichy regime in World War II to joining the French resistance against Nazi occupation.
Dupont's maverick views -- he is known as the "deputy of the concierges" because of his political base in middle-class Paris -- reflect the diverse backgrounds of the National Front deputies. They range from diehard supporters of a French presence in Algeria to a follower of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.
Le Pen himself was first elected to the assembly in 1956 as a "Poujadist," a member of a short-lived protest movement of shopkeepers and small businessmen against the forces of industrialization and economic modernization. The Poujadists, who won 52 seats in 1956, were destroyed as an effective political movement after Gen. Charles de Gaulle swept to power in 1958.
Today marked the first time since the foundation of the Fifth Republic in 1958 that a far right party has entered the assembly. The front's success was made possible in part by the reintroduction of a system of proportional representation, similar to that used under the pre-1958 Fourth Republic, that favors minority parties.
Moderate rightist leaders have accused Socialist President Francois Mitterrand of manipulating the electoral system to fragment the right-wing vote. Socialist officials have replied with charges that the center-right coalition led by the neo-Gaullist Rally for the Republic (RPR) has concluded tacit political agreements with the National Front at the local level.
While the front narrowly missed winning the balance of power in the National Assembly, it does hold the key to control of many of the regional assemblies that were also elected on March 16. In eight of France's 22 regions, the moderate right-wing parties need the votes of the extremists to form a majority.
The deputies tonight elected a leading Gaullist, Jacques Chaban-Delmas, to the prestigious position of president of the assembly for the third time in his career. A former prime minister, Chaban-Delmas had outmaneuvered former president Valery Giscard d'Estaing, a leader of the Union for French Democracy (UDF), in behind-the-scenes maneuvering for the job.
Chaban-Delmas was elected on the second ballot. On the first ballot, he fell three votes short of the overall majority needed for election, to the joy of the National Front deputies, who are eager to demonstrate that they can deny the moderate right-wing parties a working majority.
An early test of the government's control of the assembly is likely to come with a proposal by the ruling right-wing coalition to abolish proportional representation in favor of majority voting in separate electoral districts. National Front deputies have said they will join the Socialists and Communists in opposing the measure.
According to figures released by the assembly secretariat, the RPR and UDF parliamentary groups have 286 deputies between them, three short of an overall majority of 289. To be assured of total control of the assembly, the government is relying on the votes of five independent rightist deputies who are politically close to the ruling coalition but are not bound by party discipline.