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Nationalist Le Pen big loser in French vote

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 12, 2007

PARIS — Jean-Marie Le Pen's role as a force in French politics appeared to be over after his ultra-nationalist party received its worst drubbing in 25 years in the first round of legislative elections on Sunday.

The National Front won just 4.3 percent of the vote, down from 10.44 percent in 2002. That followed a surprising slump by Mr. Le Pen, 78, in last month's presidential elections.

"We can without further ado, with the strength of the vote, read out the death certificate of the extreme right," wrote Le Monde in an editorial.

"For a quarter of a century, the National Front has been a grim player in political life, trying to popularize, with growing success, a xenophobic and racist discourse culminating in April 21, 2002. This long, overly long parenthesis is now closing," Le Monde wrote.

Five years ago, 33 party candidates reached the second round of parliamentary elections, although none won a seat. In 1997, 132 reached round two; but this time, just one made it to next Sunday's second round — Mr. Le Pen's daughter, Marine.

She has no chance of beating her Socialist rival, as the eliminated candidates will call on their supporters to vote against her.

In traditional bastions such as the Rhone region, support has crumbled in favor of President Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP party, which is heading for a huge parliamentary majority.

In Villefranche, the capital of Beaujolais, where anti-Europe sentiment, the wine crisis and fears of immigration and unemployment had given the National Front up to 30 percent in 2002, support fell to just 8 percent.

Analysts said the fall was primarily because of Mr. Sarkozy's own populist discourse on national identity and tough language on immigration and law and order.

The collapse also resulted from a realization within the traditional National Front electorate that the party would never obtain power.

"It is the end of Jean-Marie Le Pen, but perhaps not the party," said Romain Rosso, a political analyst. "Part of the problem is that Le Pen has failed to renovate the old guard, and that he's getting old but he won't give up."

Mr. Le Pen is expected to be re-elected party head at a congress in November, where there is liable to be a clash between the historic far right and Marine Le Pen, who promotes a left-wing national popularism that some traditionalists abhor.

Mr. Le Pen's coming trial for describing the Nazi occupation of France as "not particularly inhuman" will likely quicken his political exit.

The party is also facing financial ruin, as its poor parliamentary score means the annual $6.1 million state funding it has received over the past five years will be cut by two-thirds.