x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Clash of the extremes ignites French election

Insults and threats of litigation dominate the duel between Marine Le Pen, the head of the far-right Front National, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the standard-bearer of the Left Front.

Marine Le Pen and her husband Louis Alliot campaign during a political rally in southern France on Wednesday.
Marine Le Pen and her husband Louis Alliot campaign during a political rally in southern France on Wednesday.

Marseille, France // France's otherwise low-key general election campaign has burst into life with a ferocious mini-battle between the two most prominent voices of political extremism.

Insults and threats of litigation dominate the duel between Marine Le Pen, the head of the far-right Front National (FN), which opposes immigration and the "Islamification" of France, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the standard-bearer of the Left Front, whose supporters include communists.

The contest in the former coal-mining town of Hénin-Beaumont provides a fascinating sideshow to the new socialist head of state Francois Hollande's attempt to win control of parliament to underpin his presidential authority.

The town has an unemployment rate approaching 20 per cent as economic malaise, fuelled by the euro-zone debt crisis, affects daily life. And the Le Pen/Mélenchon confrontation carries echoes of the deep sense of discontent felt by many in France.

The mainstream parties, the centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) and Mr Hollande's socialists, are involved too, but it is the battle of the extremes that has captured the imagination.

Hénin-Beaumont, for Ms Le Pen, became home territory when, in this electoral division, she beat both Mr Hollande and the outgoing president, Nicolas Sarkozy, into first place on April 22, the first round of the presidential elections. Mr Hollande went on to defeat Mr Sarkozy in the nationwide run-off on May 6.

As the legislative campaign approached, Mr Mélenchon deliberately chose Hénin-Beaumont so he could take on the woman he describes as "the most dangerous politician in France".

In the early stages of the contest, the pair avoided each other. More recently, notably in the television studios, there has been direct contact - and sparks have been flying.

Mr Mélenchon, who was born in Morocco to an expatriate French postal worker, was indignant to find FN supporters had produced a spoof campaign leaflet, appealing for votes in Arabic as well as French. It repeated a sentiment he had expressed in a speech on a Marseille beach: "There is no future for France without the Arabs and the Berbers of the Maghreb."

Ms Le Pen refused to distance herself from the tract. Her rival, whom she accuses of being the candidate of unrestrained immigration, is suing her. The FN has not accepted responsibility for two further leaflets, one depicting Mr Mélenchon as Hitler and the other suggesting he would permit unrestricted building of minarets.

In the presidential election, Ms Le Pen edged ahead of Mr Mélenchon nationally, taking third place and a 17.9 per cent share of the vote that many observers found a disturbing reflection of a large minority of public opinion.

She has fought a dogged but only partly successful battle to "de-demonise" the FN since becoming leader on the retirement of her father, Jean-Marie, whose views were often regarded as racist and antisemitic.

Ms Le Pen is sensitive about the way she and the FN are portrayed. This week, she threatened to sue Madonna if an image seen on screens at her concert in Israel, showing the FN leader with a swastika on her forehead, appeared when the tour reaches France next month. Ms Le Pen also promised legal action against the French philosopher, Bernard-Henry Lévy, after he said she encouraged her audiences to boo Jewish-sounding names.

FN voters, however, sometimes adopt the phrase "extreme right" when explaining their allegiance. Only last week, one of the party's city councillors in Toulon, Danièle Le Gac, told the Var-Matin newspaper that there were too many foreigners in the local football team. "There's no question of diversity," she said. "I bet they're all Muslims. In any case, they're all from Africa."

During France's 2012 election season, she has made ample use of the slogan Rassemblement Bleu Marine (the Navy Blue Union) and hinted that this could be considered as a new title to distance the party from associating it with fascist ideologies it claims to reject.

Mr Mélenchon briefly held third place in opinion polls before the presidential elections but had to content himself with 11 per cent of first-round votes. Nevertheless, the UMP insists the far left will treat the new president as its hostage, more so if socialist control of parliament depends on Left Front support.

During his Elysée campaign, Mr Mélenchon argued for public-spending increases and 100 per cent taxation of all income over €360,000 (Dh1.65 million) a year.

Such proposals attracted derision from the centre-right but the popular appeal of his exhortation translated as near four million votes.

Ms Le Pen did better still, with 6.4 million. But the latest polls suggest her remarkable local victory in Hénin-Beaumont will not be repeated when polling for parliamentary seats, which begins tomorrow, is completed on June 17.

One survey, carried out by the polling institute Ifop-Fiducial for the Voix du Nord newspaper, gives her a first-round lead, but with the left's vote split between Mr Mélenchon and the Socialist Party contender, Philippe Kemel. The second round, on voting intentions expressed in the opinion poll, would produce a socialist majority.