French leaders tilt right

After weeks of unrest, tough anti-immigrant stances are resounding with a broader section of French voters.

Through the antique binoculars in the study of his mansion in this plush Parisian suburb, Jean Marie Le Pen could almost see the fires burning in less favored districts surrounding the French capital.

And the leader of France's extreme-right National Front party says the recent wave of violence by mostly immigrant-descended youths has proved his antiforeigner stance right.

"We have won several thousand new members in the past two weeks," he exults. "People are saying, 'They said you were an extremist, but you were a visionary.' "

But Mr. Le Pen, who shocked the nation three years ago by winning second place in presidential elections on an anti-immigrant platform, should watch his flanks, says Alan Duhamel, one of France's foremost political commentators.

The conservative ruling Popular Union Movement (UMP), led by Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, is seeking to outmaneuver Le Pen by stealing his votes, says Mr. Duhamel. "Everybody is moving right," he argues. "The further right you go, the stronger you are."

As the conservative government has stumbled, while the opposition Socialist party appeared in disarray, the only political group to emerge from the crisis with its colors flying is the anti-immigration National Front, the provocative bugbear of the French political establishment.

"I am even more in tune with the public mood than in 2002," Le Pen claims in an interview. In the next presidential contest in 2007, "I will be an alternative," he predicts.

President Jacques Chirac made a bid to restore his authority Monday night, after having been almost invisible since the violence began, by delivering a solemn address to the nation on television and radio. He promised to counter discrimination and to broaden ethnic diversity in business, the media, and politics.

He also repeated that his government's "first priority" was to reestablish order, as incidents of arson persisted Monday night, although on a much diminished scale.

The authorities' efforts to achieve that goal seemed handicapped during the early days of the crisis by the rivalry between Mr. Sarkozy and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. The two leading conservative candidates to replace Mr. Chirac at the 2007 elections had been sniping at each other for months.

Criticized even by fellow cabinet members for the harsh language he used against residents of the troubled suburbs, Sarkozy - in charge of the police force and immigration issues - has made law and order his personal crusade as he eyes the presidency.

He drew fresh attention to himself last week by taking a page out of Le Pen's playbook, ordering the expulsion from France of any noncitizen found guilty of breaking the law during the violence.

His hard-line stance and his indefatigable style - visiting police officers and firemen in the suburbs almost every night since the trouble began - have earned him plaudits from the public.

An opinion poll published Sunday showed that he was the politician most trusted to resolve the problems in the suburbs, with 53 percent support, just ahead of Mr. de Villepin with 52 percent.

"Politically, I do not feel weakened," Sarkozy told the daily "Le Monde" newspaper on Monday.

The recent disorder, Duhamel suggests, "allows Le Pen to hold on to his electorate, but Sarkozy stops him winning more. Sarkozy has given a very energetic response."

Amid signs that the crisis was spiraling out of control 10 days ago, and that the public expected a firmer government response, de Villepin himself adopted a harder line, ordering a state of emergency - another of Le Pen's proposals.

The National Front leader says he is not perturbed to see the government borrowing from his approach. "The government is victim of a certain Le Pen-ization of the mood," he says. "That is how ideas advance, when others try to steal them from you. I consider that progress."

The authorities are clearly worried that recent events might boost Le Pen's support. Jean-Claude Dassier, head of the all-news LCI cable channel, defended his station against charges at an international TV conference last week that it had played down the violence by saying that "I could not forgive myself for installing the French extreme right in the first or second place of French political life."

"The government is not afraid of the suburbs, it is afraid of Le Pen's electoral victory," scoffs the National Front leader.

Government spokesman Jean-François Copé dismissed that claim Monday. "The French expected their government to assume its responsibilities, and the president and prime minister wanted to show great firmness," he told reporters. "Nobody wants this violence to lead to a rise of the extreme right."

Meanwhile the Socialist Party, divided by infighting and a leadership struggle ahead of a party congress later this week, has shown little initiative. "They have no immediate answers to offer, and they seem rather irrelevant," says Duhamel.

Having acquiesced last week in the imposition of a 12-day state of emergency and selective curfews, Socialist members of Parliament voted Tuesday against the extension of those measures for up to three months.

The opposition's lack of a clear position has not gone down well with the public. In an opinion poll published Monday in Le Monde, 71 percent of respondents said the Socialists would have done worse or no better than the government had they been dealing with the crisis. Sixty percent of them said they did not think the Socialist party could win the 2007 presidential elections.

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