Thursday, November 24, 2005

Nemesis …

I met my Nemesis yesterday. Well, I didn’t go as far as shaking his hand or actually conversing with him but I was with him … in his house, sitting on his furniture, chatting to his staff, picking up his mementos, opening and closing his doors …

… and he was just a matter of inches away.

Jean-Marie Le Pen is the leader of the French far-right party and was to be interviewed by a national broadcaster. We, the crew, had arrived at his sumptuous house in the Paris suburb of Saint Cloud and unloaded almost a ton of kit into a reception room on the ground floor. It’s a 3-story affair with large well attended gardens, a panoramic view over Paris and the Eiffel Tower (7 kilometres away) and is patrolled by two throaty Doberman Pinschers.

His house doubles as his office (nice tax break) and he has a staff of seven. Party officials, drivers and runners make constant visits. On many of the walls, hang oil paintings of a younger podgy Le Pen ‘the paratrooper’, a plentiful collection Joan of Arc effigies adorn tables and period pieces.

Once the lights, cameras, simultaneous translation kit and microphones had been plugged up, checked and double checked, a suited and booted Le Pen strode into the reception room. He looked around and couldn’t quite believe that we had done to his home. Furniture had been moved, strangers (foreigners, no less) were everywhere and talking in English, large banks of TV lights had been stuffed into corners and cables criss-crossed their way over the floor.

He was introduced to the interviewer and the producer but not to the 4-man crew. He laughed and joked, sat down and was mic’d up.

“So”, began question-master Stephen Sackur, “after the recent riots, you’ve called for all those involved to be stripped of their French nationality … how can you justify this?”

The gloves were off and Le Pen came out swinging … as be fit’s a man of his outdated and supremacist ideology.

In May of 1997, I was working for a news agency and along with a producer, Kim, we’d had been sent out ‘on the stump’ with the far-right movement in Mantes La Jolie, some 45 kilometres to the west of the capital. We had been told to wait for the Leader (Le Pen) at the church in the centre of town. I remember that it was a hot May morning and T-shirts were the order of the day. A number of right-wing supporters milled on the other pavement as a smoked-glass Renault swung towards our small group of journalists. The car was immediately surrounded by small, badly dressed banner-waving followers and a shirt-order Jean-Marie Le Pen got out and began waving like an exiled King.

Over by the church, a small group of Socialists gathered and began shouting a few ‘anti-Le Pen’ throw-away phrases. Normally, Le Pen would ignore such treatment (water of a duck’s back to such a man) but today he went over to confront them. Naturally, along with the limited press group, I followed. As he reached the base of the tower, a scuffle broke out andm on out-stretched arms, I lifted my camera over my head to capture the events. One right-wing supporter tried to haul the camera out of my hands and onto the ground but a quick foot lashing out in his direction soon put a stop to that.

Le Pen was bearing down on Socialist candidate, Annette Peulvast, and soon had her pinned against the brick-work. The above photo illustrates such heated agression and my footage on the day (from just behind Le Pen), clearly showed his clenched fist against Peulvast’s upper body.

After a few hours of trailing Le Pen around Mantes, it was time to get the footage back to the office and satellite them over to our London headquarters. Kim had given a head’s-up to the office and told them what to expect.

There then followed a few minutes silence in our speeding car … and then the phones went bananas. “You mean you have shots of Le Pen physically attacking another candidate?” The Paris office followed by the London office. Then another call from the Paris office. No-one could quite believe us. The the print journalists started filing news from Mantes and the wires spoke of “Le Pen punches Socialist” … and if we had the only moving pictures of it, then “get back here soonest”.

That night, my pictures opened every European news programme and over the course of the next week, had been replayed in slow-motion, analysed, zoomed into, blown up and printed in magazines and newspapers. Meanwhile, Le Pen was accusing the cameraman of “manipulating the pictures” and the Police were knocking on the door, requesting a copy of the tape. Naturally, we surrendered a cassette.

The agency had strong feelings about possible reprisals by the National Front so they shipped me out to Hong Kong for a spell, just until the fuss died down.

Le Pen was convicted of assault and stripped of his civic rights for two years for throwing punches and insults during election campaigning. The court in Versailles also imposed a three-month suspended jail sentence against him and slapped him a highly inappropriate fine of €3000 (£2000). The stripping of his political rights meant that he was unable to vote or stand for election for the duration of the ban.

His lawyers had called for an acquittal saying there was a lack of evidence.

Back in Saint Cloud, Le Pen wasover a barrel, being quoted in his own words about stopping immigration, changing the law to take national citizenship away from troublemakers and why he keeps friends such as the British National Front and the American KKK. You can judge a man by the company he keeps … and this man just couldn’t give a straight answer without get all hot under the collar.

And there I was, behind my camera and just over Le Pen’s shoulder … my 20 seconds of evidence, the 'manipulating cameraman' ... what I captured back in 1997 may have rocked the French political world for a mere instant but it happened nonetheless.

Once our interview was over, Le Pen sat back in his chair, “That was tough!”

Yeah, a little tougher than you can handle, eh big man?



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