France's extreme-right National Front party, which has played a pivotal role in French politics since the 1980s, is again setting the tone of the nation's political debate.
Provocative comments last month from National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen advocating the "inequality of races" prompted the government to respond with controversial new legislation limiting "hate speech."
The new law would impose mandatory jail sentences for comments such as Mr. Le Pen's and could effectively outlaw his party.
At the same time, Prime Minister Alain Jupp announced this week that he will propose stronger laws limiting immigration in France - a key National Front demand. In addition, the government is proposing changes in election laws that would guarantee the National Front representation in the legislature. These conflicting strategies on how to deal with the National Front reflect deeper divisions among French conservatives on how to hold on to their majority in 1998 legislative elections.
But critics say that the result of such proposals could be to strengthen extremist movements and put unreasonable curbs on public debate.
This week, the government hit new lows in public-opinion surveys. Only 31 percent of French polled are satisfied with their government, down 6 points from last month, according to a survey published yesterday in the weekly Paris Match by the Paris-based polling institute BVA.
Economic reforms, including a recent promised tax cut, have done little to reassure a public that is most concerned about the 12.5 percent unemployment rate. Today, unions plan to disrupt public-transport service in Paris and have set an Oct. 17 strike date to protest government spending cuts and layoffs. In response, Mr. Jupp promises to put his government's economic program on the line as the legislature reconvenes next week. With an 83 percent majority, formal approval is assured.
But conservatives worry that they will not be able to carry that majority past the next legislative elections. Recent polls give the edge in the 1998 vote to opposition Socialists.
Moreover, many key conservative leaders are not convinced that the government's new political agenda that attacks the National Front, while reaching out to its voters, is part of the solution.
Commenting on the government's plans to revamp the electoral system, Senate President Ren Monory told conservative deputies in their annual meeting this week to "forget these last-minute electoral maneuverings that end up doing more harm than good .... Don't try to run faster than Le Pen, he will always be faster than us!"
Faced with a similar prospect of losing his majority in 1986 elections, then-Socialist President Mitterrand also tinkered with the election laws to fragment the conservative opposition. The broad system of proportional representation he introduced guaranteed representation to small parties. While the change did not prevent a conservative victory, it cushioned Socialist losses and gave the National Front 35 seats.
President Jacques Chirac is now considering a return to some form of proportional representation - a move that could help preserve his majority in 1998. A draft proposal would have reduced by a half the number of seats for Socialists and given the National Front 35 seats, according to vote projections.
National Front leaders welcome this move but insist that it is not intended as a gift to their party.
"The government is just looking for an election formula that will help save its majority, and it happens to help us," says Bruno Mgret, the National Front's No. 2, in an interview.
However, the government's proposed antiracist law, which clearly targets the National Front, could have more sweeping impact.
This month, Justice Minister Jacques Toubon said he will propose a law to that would punish the publication of xenophobic and racist ideas. Current law only punishes acts that incite discrimination, hatred, or violence.
"I worry that the Toubon text ... could open a breach to repress opinion that goes far beyond racism," says Henri Leclerc, president of the Paris-based French Human Rights League, in an interview with the daily Liberation.
NATIONAL Front leaders describe the proposed law as a "boomerang" that they will use against "anti-French racists." "There are young [immigrants] in the suburbs who say things against France, the French, and the [Roman] Catholic religion, along with some French intellectuals and certain Jewish publications. We could use this law against all these groups," Mr. Mgret says.
In response, Mr. Toubon says his law is not directed just against the National Front. "The new law also permits prosecution of anti-French or anti-European racist messages as expressed by certain Islamic extremists," he said in an interview yesterday with the conservative daily Le Figaro.
Many deputies have also expressed doubts about the new law. "Once again we're giving the impression that politicians are just running in the wake of the National Front," says conservative deputy Pierre Mazeaud.