- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 21, 2006

PARIS — As the French government tears itself apart amid a trumped-up corruption scandal and the Socialist opposition fails to capitalize on the chaos, Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front (FN), has gained record levels of support — without saying a word in public.

According to a survey in the newsmagazine Le Point last week, 22 percent of the French population has a favorable opinion of Mr. Le Pen.

The rating is far higher than the 16 percent popularity that Mr. Le Pen scored in polls four years ago, just before the presidential elections in which he shocked France by beating the socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, in the first round of voting. He lost to Jacques Chirac in the second round, and political commentators insisted that his success was a blip that would never happen again.

“His ideas have never been so popular,” said his daughter and likely successor, Marine. She is “very, very optimistic” about her father’s chances in next year’s presidential election.

“He will be in the second round, the only question is who he will be against,” Miss Le Pen said. “It’s a case of people realizing that reality is reflecting what we have been saying for the past 30 years. It is also because the political system is caving in on itself.”

The swing to the extreme right has been attributed to a combination of economic gloom and series of events — the fall rioting in the suburbs, student violence over a proposed employment law and now a dirty-tricks scandal — that have crippled the government

Polls have shown the FN relentlessly on the rise since November’s violence in the immigrant ghettos on the outskirts of France’s biggest cities. In October, 8 percent of French people said they would vote for Mr. Le Pen’s party. By December that had risen to 11 percent, and by February, it was 12 percent. In March, at the height of the student riots, would-be FN voters had increased to 13 percent, and in April, they were 14 percent.

Before 2002, the highest point for the FN, which was created in 1972, was in the mid-1990s, when the party took over six mayoral posts, capitalizing on increasing concerns over immigration.

Supporters think Mr. Le Pen’s silence over the Clearstream dirty-tricks scandal has helped to distinguish him from the tarnished crowd.

Most critics of the French government have had a field day over the scandal, which has pitted Mr. Chirac and the prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, against Nicolas Sarkozy, the foreign minister — all members of the same center-right party.

Mr. Le Pen has made a point of keeping out of the political mudslinging, telling friends that Clearstream is nothing more than a “sordid masquerade.”

“There’s no reason for me to attack these people with my little hammer when they’re smashing each other up with a road drill,” he said privately, according to Le Figaro newspaper.

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