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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Jean Marie Le Pen : The Strong Voice of France's Far Right

May 26, 1996|Scott Kraft | Scott Kraft is Paris bureau chief for The Times. He interviewed Jean-Marie Le Pen in his home study

The big shock in last year's first round of French presidential elections wasn't the winner or even the runner-up. It was the strong support for Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the extreme-right National Front.

Le Pen collected 15% of the vote, his best showing in three tries for the presidency, on a campaign to expel France's 3 million immigrants. And the stocky, silver-haired politician is still basking in the glow.

The National Front is now the third most popular party in France, behind the ruling conservatives of President Jacques Chirac and the Socialists. Front candidates won mayoral races in three southern cities last summer. And, in a recent opinion poll, 28% of the French said they were "in agreement" with Le Pen's ideas. That figure was 18% just two years ago.

But Le Pen, at 67, hasn't exactly become mainstream. Those same opinion polls indicate 71% of the French consider his party "a threat to democracy," and analysts place him on the right-wing fringe of the political spectrum.

Although Le Pen insists he is neither racist nor anti-Semitic, his party shares the rhetoric of European neo-Nazi groups. Card-carrying members of his party have been implicated in several highly publicized deaths of Arabs in France. He once suggested that people with AIDS--"a deadly disease, contracted mainly from sodomy," he says--be confined to specialized homes, which he dubbed "Aidatoriums."

These days, Le Pen prefers to talk about immigration, an issue that hits home with small merchants, factory workers, farmers and others who blame "foreigners" for debilitating unemployment, which currently is 12%. Le Pen sees himself as an unappreciated visionary. "I'm always in the situation of telling people, in advance, what is going to happen," he says. "So I am very poorly regarded."

Yet, he has always thrived on the notoriety. A gifted, charismatic orator, he emerged onto the political scene in 1956, as the youngest member of the French Parliament and, in 1972, created the National Front.

He was born in a seaside village in Brittany, the son of a fisherman. He joined the Foreign Legion, serving in Indochina and Algeria. He later founded a record-publishing house, which today produces cassettes and compact discs on contemporary history with a militaristic, right-wing slant.

He has three grown daughters and three grandchildren and lives with his wife in a large, hilltop chateau in Saint-Cloud, west of Paris. The house is filled with statues of Joan of Arc, matron saint of the extreme right. His second-floor study offers a stunning view of Paris' Left Bank, home of many of the left-wing intellectuals he disdains.

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Question: How is the right doing internationally these days?

Answer: Although politically incorrect, and despite the obvious media adversity, we haven't stopped advancing.

Q: What is the reason for that growth?

A: The global policy of removing borders has created a fantastic growth in immigration and provoked unbearable economic and social consequences. And those conditions have shown people that the idea of the "nation" remains the most effective way to protect security, liberty, identity and prosperity.

To live in harmony, people need a minimum sense of affinity. Just because all human beings have a soul and equal dignity doesn't mean one can mix them all with good results. In order to tolerate each other in communal life, people need common ways of being, ways of living and ways of feeling.

Q: But many immigrants from Third World countries have, in fact, become French citizens. Don't they share this common reference?

A: Those immigrants are, in fact, double nationals . . . . One cannot make a French people from massive immigration. To live in security and harmony, people need a certain homogeneity.

Q: What about European immigrants who came generations ago?

A: For those, no problem. These Italians, Spanish and Portuguese have really become French. They are of the same culture.

The problem we must face is the large mass of immigrants from the Third World who are often people with their own strong ethnic or cultural makeup. It's not like in the United States--where they come from Mexico. Here they come from white and black Africa, from South America, from Eastern Europe and especially from the immense Asian reservoir . . . .

That creates--and people don't understand--a very real danger of submersion. And just because this immigration is done without weapons doesn't mean it isn't an invasion. If the Nazi Germans had come in 1939 wearing suitcases and hats, it still would have been an invasion.

Q: Are you saying some immigrants are better than others? Some are able to become French and others really never can?

A: That is one element of the problem. But another is, is it in the interest of France to accept foreign immigrants?

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