French right cosies up to racist Le Pen

Jospin warns that local deals could threaten democracy. John Lichfield in Paris reports
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FRANCE faces a potentially explosive crisis today which could transform the political landscape in dangerous and unpredictable ways.

Bowing to a revolt by their own members, centre-right parties appeared ready last night to do a moral and political volte-face and permit local alliances with the ultra-right National Front, breaking a 10-year taboo on dealings with Jean-Marie Le Pen's nationalist and covertly racist party. The Socialist Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, warned the "traditional" right against such a step, which, he said, would threaten democracy and the Republic itself.

The centre-left Le Monde said the "traditional" right was in "utter panic" after local-election losses last weekend. If it did deals with the NF when regional assemblies meet today, it would have reached its "darkest day". The paper's editor, Jean-Marie Colombani, compared the fast-moving muddle of recent days to crises which had brought down French democratic institutions in the past.

The immediate issue is the fate of maybe six regional governments, in themselves of limited importance. The opaque results of regional elections last Sunday precipitated a crisis between the weak and discredited leadership of the parties of the "respectable right" and their grassroots members. On Sunday a coalition of the left topped the poll in 11 out of 21 regions in France proper but won a full majority in only one. In other regions there was a right-wing "majority", but split between the "traditional right", the Gaullist RPR and the smaller centre-right parties grouped in the UDF, and the NF.

Centre-right leaders had sworn that they would make no deals with the NF to stay in power.

But in at least five regions, Gaullist and UDF leaders have repudiated this promise, enteringnegotiations with the NF for support when regional assemblies meet today to choose their presidents. Deals were going ahead yesterday in Languedoc-Roussillon, Picardy, Upper Normandy, Burgundy, the Pyrenees and, possibly, the Ile-de-France.

Local leaders were summoned to Paris yesterday to discuss halting the insurrection. Officially, the RPR and UDF re-stated their old position after the meeting: no regional governments would be formed with NF support. But, Le Monde reported, centre-right leaders had been forced secretly to accept a compromise. There would be no formal deals with the NF but if centre-right regional presidents were mysteriously elected with far- right votes, that would be accepted. The alternative, it was feared, was outright revolt.

There were similar accords with a weaker NF in the 1980s, and there have been similar rows between the centre-right leaders and the grassroots in recent years. The present crisis is made more explosive by two factors. First, there is the strength of the Front, which has taken 15 per cent of the vote in each of the last three nationwide polls.

Secondly, there are the weaknesses and internal dissensions of the RPR and UDF, which have not recovered from the defeat in parliamentary elections last year. Deals with the NF, intended to keep the centre-right parties together, could just as easily split them apart.