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Walker's World: Is Le Pen ruling France?

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor

WASHINGTON, Nov. 8 (UPI) -- The person who seems to be running France at this moment of extraordinary crisis, with a 12-day state of emergency formally declared by the government Tuesday, is the right-wing extremist leader of the Front National, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

He demanded a week ago that the prefects, the state-appointed governors of the French provinces, be authorized to impose curfews in their districts. This has now been done.

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He demanded that the 1955 law on closing all public places in a defined district, first passed during the Algerian War, should be dusted off and re-applied. This too has been done.

Le Pen demanded the call-up of gendarme reservists (in France, they come under the authority of Defense Ministry) and this too has been done.

He routinely uses the word "racaille" (rabble, or scum) to describe the disaffected Muslim youth of the soulless tower blocks of France's banlieues, and now the minister of interior, Nicolas Sarkozy (himself descended from Hungarian immigrants),causes an outcry by deploying the same term.

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His party's policy statement puts in pride of place "re-establish law and order." President Jacques Chirac, in his statement to the nation Sunday night after an emergency Cabinet meeting, said: "Restoring public order is the absolute priority."

Le Pen's demand for "repression based on zero tolerance" was echoed by Sarkozy's latest statement, that "prevention, which is indispensable, should not exclude repression, whenever it shows itself to be just and necessary."

Le Pen campaigned in the last regional election in 2004 for a return to apprenticeships at age 14, to give unemployed youth the prospect of jobs. This too has now been done by the embattled conservative government that seems to be dancing to Le Pen's tune, even as it resists the sweeping mass deportation of illegal immigrants and felons that Le Pen demands.

Le Pen's slogan for the past 20 years -- "France, love her or leave her" -- has now been taken up by the rather more respectable right-wing of French politics. The nationalist lawmaker Philippe de Villiers, member of the National Assembly and leader of the Movement for France, is now using the slogan "France -- you love her or you quit." And in saying he stands for "the de-Islamization of France," de Villiers is now the echo of Le Pen.

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Jean-Marie Le Pen is an extraordinary figure in French politics, aged 77 but as feisty and combative as ever, announcing a new mass demonstration for Monday evening at the Palais Royal in the heart of Paris -- in what looks like a very direct provocation to the angry young men of the burning suburbs.

Born in Brittany, the orphaned son of a fisherman, he came to Paris just after World War II as a law student and pugnacious anti-Communist, always ready to fight "the reds." He joined the elite paratroops of the Foreign Legion after the humiliating defeat of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam, and fought in Algeria. He brought -- and lost -- libel writs against two French publications that claimed he had been a torturer at the notorious Villa Susini, and he has never hesitated to justify the use of torture against terrorists.

Briefly elected to parliament for the short-lived Poujadist movement in the 1950s, he then fell on hard times and started a company selling "historical" records, mainly of military marches and speeches. He was fined for promoting an album of Nazi marching songs that said Hitler's movement was "on the whole popular and democratic."

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Then he was bequeathed a fortune by the heir to the Lambert cement company, founded the Front National, won election to the European parliament under a system of proportional representation, and in the 2002 presidential election took 18 percent of the vote, defeating the humiliated Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.

Since that high point of his career, Le Pen has seemed to falter and to age, leaving more and more of his party's affairs in the hands of his daughter, Marine, who is just as strongly anti-immigration as her father. Obsessed with the prospect of Turkey joining the European Union, he even decided to leave France last week to take up an invitation to go to Cyprus, to campaign among the Greek Cypriots whom he sees as the best hope to veto the admission of "another 75 million Muslims."

But he is back in time to see the center-right government of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin bring back the draconian 1955 extraordinary law that was passed at the height of the terrorist campaigns of the Algerian War, the event that remains for Le Pen a crucial point of reference for modern France.

Former Justice Minister Elisabeth Guigou noted drily: "The Algerian war is not the best reference" for the imposition of a tough law designed to suppress the riots that have been launched by youths of North African and in many cases Algerian descent.

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"Digging up a 1955 law sends to the youth of the suburbs a message of astonishing brutality, that after 50 years France intends to treat them exactly as it did their grandparents," commented the leading French daily, Le Monde.

And now the Front National Web site, like Le Pen on every TV and radio talk show he can make, is claiming a triumphant vindication, even as he mourns the violence and destruction that has swept 300 towns and cities across France, and that now has the Belgians and Germans nervous that copy-cat car burnings have started in their towns as well.

"Le Pen said it," say the posters advertising his rally in parties in Monday. "Le Pen warned that immigration was out of control, that law and order had broken down, that our national sovereignty was being given away, that the days of violence and race riots and civil war were coming. Le Pen always said it. And Le Pen was right all along."

France's next presidential elections are still 18 months away, which may be just as well for the panicking politicians of mainstream democracy.

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