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‘Amateur’ Le Pen bid shakes National Front

PARIS, Feb 23 (AFP) – French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen’s disqualification from March regional elections for failing to meet residence requirements is a blow to his political ambitions and a sign of gross incompetence within his National Front (FN) party, analysts said Monday.

On Sunday a court in France’s second city Marseille ruled that the 75-year-old former paratrooper is ineligible as a candidate for the presidency of the southern Provence-Alpes-Cotes D’Azur (PACA) region because he was unable to provide proof that he has a home there, as electoral rules demand.

Le Pen – who enjoys his strongest support in the high-immigration areas along the Mediterranean coast – has accused the government of President Jacques Chirac of orchestrating the ban to keep him from positions of power, but press commentators said the fault lay entirely within his own organisation.

“The National Front has never replied positively to the question posed by its leader after his first round triumph in the 2002 presidential elections – ‘If we win, are we ready?’ Once again the answer is no,” said Eric Zemmour in the conservative Le Figaro newspaper.

“For a party which since April 21 2002 (the first round of the election) has been proclaiming from the roof-tops that it wants to develop a culture of government, this stinks of sheer amateurism,” according to Christophe Forcari in the left-wing Liberation.

Le Pen shocked France by breaking through to second place in the 2002 presidential race, and since then the FN has increasingly sought to portray itself as a potential party of government rather than a mere movement of protest voters.

Under Le Pen’s strategy, he was to use victory in next month’s regional elections in PACA as a springboard for a new presidential bid in 2007. However the inability of party officials to ensure that their leader complied with basic electoral procedure has blown the plan out of the water.

Some analysts Monday saw in the debacle a revival of long-standing tensions within the FN between an old guard of Le Pen loyalists content to keep their leader in the public eye, and a new generation who want to turn the party into a more professional vote-winning machine.

Similar divisions led to the breakaway of a rump of the party in 1998 under Le Pen’s former deputy Bruno Megret, and there were signs the leader’s disqualification in PACA could excite new frustations among party officials – not least his own daughter Marine who has done much to modernise the FN.

And internal resentment within the FN was likely to be increased by speculation that Le Pen may actually have connived at his disqualification – or at least accepted it rather too readily – because he realised his chances of winning the presidency of PACA were small.

Polls put the FN’s vote in the March 21 first round of the vote at around 20 percent, and though this was likely to be an underestimate, he was still behind the mainstream candidates of left and right who could if necessary unite their support to form a blocking majority in the second round.

The disqualification may allow Le Pen to sustain his long-standing performance as a political outcast, but it will do little for the morale of his foot-soldiers who must now face the election under the banner of a little-known 74-year-old lawyer, Guy Macary.

“At FN headquarters tongues are beginning to be unleashed demanding that heads roll,” said Forcari in Liberation.


                                                              Subject: France news