A fratricidal power struggle that is tearing the extreme right-wing National Front party to pieces could reshape the French political landscape and give moderate conservative parties a chance to reassert themselves, political analysts here are suggesting.
The anti-immigration National Front (FN), one of the biggest far-right forces in Europe, now seems doomed to split into two parties as a result of an ugly and protracted public battle between leader Jean-Marie Le Pen and his former deputy, Bruno Mgret.
The question is where the 15 percent of the French electorate that habitually votes for the FN will go now.
The crisis "is good news" for mainstream right-wing parties, according to Nicolas Sarkozy, secretary-general of President Jacques Chirac's conservative Rally for the Republic party (RPR). "If [FN] voters or activists want to turn away from this party to join us, we will accept them," Mr. Sarkozy said in a recent interview with the Paris daily Le Figaro.
President Chirac has gone on the offensive in recent weeks, taking advantage of disarray in Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's Socialist-led government over immigration policy and a new law offering broader rights to same-sex couples.
Chirac is anxious to infuse new vigor into the French right, which was demoralized by its defeat in snap parliamentary elections last year and has seemed to lack leadership and direction ever since.
But the split in the FN, pitting the pugnacious, charismatic Mr. Le Pen against the smooth and calculating Mr. Mgret, poses a dilemma for the mainstream conservative parties such as the RPR and its ally, the Union for French Democracy (UDF).
Mgret's political strategy has been to cleanse his party of its skinhead, neo-fascist image, and to do electoral deals in the regions with traditional right-wing parties so as to cement alliances with them. His strength has lain in the steady support the FN has won from voters worried about their jobs, fearful of immigrants, and mistrustful of politicians.
"We want to launch an offensive to win power in this country ... while Jean-Marie Le Pen wants to maintain the National Front as a small family business," Mgret said Dec. 14, outlining his differences with his former boss.
Banned from running for office after assaulting a rival politician, Le Pen had announced that his wife, Jany, would head the party's list of candidates at next June's European parliamentary elections.
Local politicians from the RPR and UDF who struck deals with the National Front after regional elections last summer were expelled from their parties. Chirac lambasted Le Pen's party as "racist and xenophobic," and RPR leaders have tried to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the FN.
But if Le Pen continues to attract the hard-core neofascist vote, the big conservative parties might be tempted to angle for Mgret supporters and thus encourage acceptance of their extremist attitudes into the French political mainstream.