France's Far Right Loses Appeal Under Balladur's Conservative Rule

SEVERAL dozen French youths are proudly waving the French tricolor flag on the stage of a convention center in this wealthy suburb west of Paris, as their political mentor, the far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, leads them in a booming chorus of the Marseillaise.

About 1,600 delegates of Mr. Le Pen's party, the National Front, are on their feet, celebrating the FN's 20th anniversary and Sunday's unchallenged reelection of the pariah of France's politically correct at the helm of their movement.

A blue, white, and red arrow, growing in width as it swirls upward, is the dominant prop on a stage that for three days has hosted muscular diatribes against immigration, multiculturalism, and the ``capitalo-internationalism'' that threatens French identity and independence, and for the renaissance of ``a nation molded by 15 centuries of glorious history.''

Yet despite the song and confident speech, all is not well with the French far right. In spite of events across Europe - from antiforeigner attacks in Germany to the inter-ethnic war in Bosnia - that led analysts to warn of a rising tide of nationalism, France's foremost nationalist movement has fallen from the French political scene over the past year.

A national poll released last week by the Paris daily Le Monde found that 79 percent of the French are broadly opposed to the ideas espoused by Le Pen - up from 65 percent in 1991. The percentage of the French who consider the Front ``a danger for democracy,'' has jumped to 73 percent, from roughly 65 percent.

Last spring's crushing victory in national elections by the center-right coalition of Prime Minister Edouard Balladur - which FN sympathizers label the ``false right'' - was the hard blow that left Le Pen and his movement stunned. Despite a 12.5 percent national score, the FN won no parliamentary seats. (The Communists, by contrast, with 8 percent of the vote, won 22 seats).

The Balladur government's tough new anti-immigration laws, authored by law-and-order Interior Minister Charles Pasqua, have pulled the wind from one of the FN's biggest sails. As a poster at a Saturday antiracism rally in Paris proclaimed, ``Pasqua copies Le Pen'' - and the French appear to like it that way.

Why do they need Le Pen, when cases of rough treatment for immigrants - including the arrest of a not-fully-documented foreigner as she stood ready in her wedding gown to marry a Frenchman and the denied entry into public school of some half-French, foreign-born children - are becoming commonplace?

Some FN supporters agree that last year's knock-out of the long-reigning socialists put their movement on hold. ``We are not opposed to Balladur personally, and so we wanted to give him a chance,'' says Marie-Thse Ract, a delegate from France's Auvergne region. ``But now his policies have proven to be the same ruinous ones as his predecessor, so we are proclaiming our opposition.''

MORE common among the faithful, however, is holding the French media responsible for the FN's eclipse. ``The newspapers and television have worked together to diabolize us, to call us fascists and goose-steppers; but do you see us with shaved heads and leather boots?'' asks Henri Balssa, a law student - in tie, coat, and a respectable bourgeois haircut - and FN local candidate from the Tarnes region.

That argument carries some weight. The FN's three-day party congress received considerably less coverage than the previous week's Communist convention. But more astonishing, in a country where intellectuals snicker at the American notion of political correctness, is the refusal of top television journalist Anne Sinclair to receive Le Pen on her Sunday prime-time interview program.

Still, the FN seems to understand it has reached what party leader Jean-Claude Martinez calls a ``ceiling of support'' with the immigration issue. As a result, it has given emphasis to its defense of ``French France'' against free-market globalization, as a means of breaking new electoral ground.

``This theme of rural France ... can be the means by which the National Front goes beyond the ceiling it continues to bump against,'' says Mr. Martinez, an FN representative in the European Parliament. The FN, which boasts 1,200 local elected officials, has seen most of its recent growth in rural areas, he adds.

Railing against a France that has ``surrendered'' to the no-borders, free-trade thinking of the European Union and international institutions such as the World Bank and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, Martinez told cheering delegates that ``It is not in Brussels [EU headquarters], not in Washington, and not in New York that decisions affecting France should be taken, but in Paris.''

FN leaders will be watching upcoming regional and European Parliament elections to see whether this emphasis on nationalist economics bears fruit.

In the meantime, the Front's anti-internationalist thinking puts it squarely against French military involvement in Bosnia - just as it opposed France's role in the Gulf war. That position goes against the current French clamoring for intervention, but could garner more favor should public opinion sour on the French role.

And intervention or not, Le Pen says Bosnia has lessons for France. Employing the kind of sensationalism that has got him media exposure - and better electoral scores - in the past, the far-right leader ticks off recent examples of ethnic-based battles in France, and says, ``If you want to know what's going to happen in France, look at Yugoslavia.''

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