Le Pen's Popularity Divides France

PARIS -- Ban him? Prosecute him? Legislate against him? Debate him? Demonstrate against him? Report on him? Ignore him? Fight him in the streets?

France's political establishment and media are divided over how to counter the seemingly inexorable rise of extreme-right anti-immigration crusader Jean-Marie Le Pen.

As Le Pen basks in the glare of publicity ahead of his National Front, or FN, party's congress in Strasbourg this weekend, the mainstream parties, newspapers and broadcasters are anxiously debating how to deal with him.

France's left-wing parties, reinforced by young Socialists from across Europe, plan to demonstrate Saturday against Le Pen in Strasbourg.

Intellectual anti-fascist groups have chartered "freedom trains" to take celebrities and activists to Strasbourg from Paris and Toulon, the biggest city run by the National Front.

Le Pen says he is convinced left-wing agitation against him plays into the FN's hands by outraging ordinary voters.

The debate often degenerates into a left-right blame-game. Conservatives accuse the Socialists of having opened the doors of television studios and parliament to Le Pen in the 1980s.

The left accuses the center-right of adopting the National Front's political agenda by passing repressive immigration laws.

After Le Pen openly espoused racial inequality last year, opposition Socialist politician Henri Emmanuelli called for the FN to be banned.

But his own party disowned the idea and few politicians believe it is feasible now that Le Pen has 15 percent of the vote and holds seats in the European Parliament, regional assemblies and French city councils.

Conservative Gaullist Justice Minister Jacques Toubon has proposed a tougher bill to punish racist statements, but his own coalition shows no sign of willingness to enact legislation that critics say would make a martyr of Le Pen.

Pierre Mazeaud, Gaullist chairman of parliament's legal committee, says the government could and should prosecute Le Pen under existing laws on incitement to racial hatred. Toubon says experts have advised him prospects of a conviction are slight.

The parliamentary leader of the center-right UDF party, Gilles de Robien, called this week for a "media boycott" of the National Front, an idea immediately rejected by the media. Most media editors argue that the public must be informed about the National Front's ideas if they are to recognize a danger.