Le Pen rallies those 'French by heart and spirit'
VALMY, France, Sept 20, 2006 (AFP) – Veteran French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen fired an opening salvo in his fifth bid for the presidency in characteristically provocative style Wednesday, riling his opponents with a speech from a famous Revolution battleground.
“In seven months it is a question of victory or death,” the 77-year-old head of the National Front (FN) told a crowd of 100 supporters at Valmy, 230 kilometres east of Paris, where on September 20, 1792, France's revolutionary forces saw off an invading Austro-Prussian army.
“Either France will rout the hostile powers, or else by a simple vote it will abandon its history and soul to the enemy armies of globalised liberalism, social division, unrestrained immigration and regression,” he said.
In presidential elections due next April Le Pen is hoping to repeat his stunning success of 2002, when with 16.86 percent of the vote he beat the Socialist contender Lionel Jospin and qualified for the run-off against Jacques Chirac.
Though he was easily beaten in round two, the breakthrough for the far-right sent out a political shockwave because it appeared to indicate a collapse of confidence in mainstream parties.
Le Pen's choice of Valmy at the start of probably his last presidential campaign was deliberately intended as a taunt to his rivals, because the battle is seen as a crucible for the French Republic whose values the far-right is regularly accused of betraying.
According to FN staff, the idea belonged to Marine le Pen, the leader's 38 year-old daughter and adviser, who has been trying to reposition the party away from its more extreme positions on immigration, Europe and the economy.
Speaking from the base of Valmy's famous mill, Le Pen poured scorn on the two likely frontrunners for the presidency Nicolas Sarkozy and Sgolne Royal.
Sarkozy of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) known for his strong views on immigration and law and order was “a sort of bourgeois Le Pen, Le Pen in a tie,” while he accused the Socialist Royal of “making femininity the answer to everything”.
Inviting the country “to embark with me on the open sea for a new chapter in the history of France,” Le Pen broke new ground by including “French people of foreign origin”.
“I appeal to you to unite behind our values, as long as you respect our customs and laws, as long as it is by toil alone that you aspire to lift yourselves in this country.
“There was a Platini, there was a Zidane. Why should this great design not be possible tomorrow?,” he said in reference to two great football players who came from immigrant families.
“As French people not French on paper or French by origin, but French by heart and spirit we can all form tomorrow the varied army of the soldiers of Valmy,” he said.
Le Pen's visit was opposed by left-wing groups who put on a counter-demonstration. “We cannot let the far-right stage a hold-up on one of the founding symbols of the Revolution,” said Paul Meyter of the Young Socialist Movement.
Some in the FN were also opposed to the speech, on the grounds that the Revolution was a disaster in French history.
The battle of Valmy took place at a key moment in the French Revolution, when it was unclear if the country could resist its royalist enemies in the rest of Europe.
The French army made up largely of inexperienced volunteers surprised the advancing Franco-Prussians with a salvo of artillery. Only 500 people died but the German writer Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, who was there, said: “From today and this place dates a new era in the history of the world.”