Win or lose, he's won

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Defeat for far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in Sunday's presidential run-off has been predicted as certain. But even if so it will never - Le Pen can proudly reflect - have tasted so sweet. Hugh Schofield reports.

For nearly half a century he has crowed his nationalistic message from the wings, but after his shock first round presidential triumph French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen is now strutting centre-stage. He is - for now - cock of the political walk.

Victory on April 21, in which he took 16.86 percent of the vote and forced his hated Socialists out of the race, was the highpoint of a career that began in the 1950s.

Even massive nationwide protests, including ones Wednesday that totalled 1.3 million people, have failed to dent his confidence.

Written off after his National Front (FN) party split in two in 1998, the 73-year-old former paratrooper has shown that his populist attacks slamming immigration, the European Union and France's ruling elite still have a strong appeal.

And with everyone from the Communist Party to the Roman Catholic church uniting to do him down, he can glory in the knowledge that the establishment that so despises him has been shaken to its roots by his success.

Le Pen was born in 1928 in the Brittany town of La Trinité-sur-Mer, where in his childhood he first made his reputation as a bruiser. He joined the Foreign Legion in 1954, seeing action in Indochina and Algeria.

He first moved into politics in 1956, when he became a deputy for the shop-keepers' party of Pierre Poujade. In 1965 he helped run the election campaign of far-right candidate Jean-Louis Tixier-Vignancour, and in 1972 he set up the FN.

With his dire warnings of the threat to French life from North African immigration, he pushed his share of the presidential vote up from 0.74 percent in 1974 to 14 percent in 1988 and 15 percent in 1995.

In the meantime, the parliamentary fortunes of the FN rose and fell. It won 35 seats in 1986 after the late president Francois Mitterrand changed the voting system in order to discomfit the mainstream right, but today it has none.

And in 1998 came the great treachery. His heir-apparent - backroom technocrat Bruno Megret - launched a bid for power. He was swiftly ousted, but the party never fully recovered. Any mention of the scheming arch-traitor brings the party leader out in a paroxysm of contempt.

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