French right jumps into bed with Le Pen

Change ends taboo on deals with racist party. John Lichfield, in Paris, reports
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FRANCE faces a potentially explosive crisis today which could transform the country's political landscape in dangerous and unpredictable ways.

Bowing to an open revolt by their own members, the French centre-right parties appeared ready last night to perform a moral and political volte- face and permit local alliances with the ultra-right National Front. This would break a 10-year philosophical and strategic taboo on dealings with Jean-Marie Le Pen's ultra-nationalist and covertly racist party.

The Socialist Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, solemnly warned the "traditional" right against taking such a step, which, he said, would threaten democracy and the Republic itself. The bishop of Nimes, in the south of France, said deals with the NF would amount to "prostitution". The centre-left newspaper Le Monde reported that the French "traditional" right was in a state of "utter panic", following local election losses last weekend. If it made deals with the NF when regional assemblies meet all over France today, it would have reached its "darkest day". In a signed front-page editorial, the paper's editor, Jean-Marie Colombani, compared the fast- moving muddle of recent days to the crises which had brought down French democratic institutions in the past. It might even become necessary, he said, to abandon the "devastated landscape" of the Fifth Republic and move to a new political system, as Italy had recently done.

The immediate issue at stake is the fate of maybe half a dozen regional governments, which are, in themselves, of limited political importance. The opaque results of a regional election last Sunday have precipitated a crisis between the weak and discredited leadership of the parties of the "respectable right" and their own grassroots members: a crisis which has been long in the making.

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 the other regions there was a right-wing "majority" but a majority split between the "traditional right", the Gaullist RPR and the smaller centre-right parties grouped in the UDF, and the National Front. Before the elections, centre-right leaders swore that they would make no deals with the NF to stay in power in any region. Where the left topped the poll, it would be allowed to form a minority government.

In at least five regions local Gaullist and UDF leaders have repudiated this promise. They have entered sometimes secret, and sometimes open, negotiations with the NF for ultra-right support when the regional assemblies meet to choose their presidents today.

Despite dire warnings, and the threat of expulsion, already carried out against one former general-secretary of the RPR, it became clear yesterday that deals were going ahead at local level in Languedoc-Roussillon, Picardy, Upper Normandy, Burgundy, the Pyrenees and, possibly, the greater Paris area, the Ile-de-France.

Local leaders were summoned to Paris yesterday to discuss ways of halting this insurrection. Officially, the RPR and UDF re-stated their old position after the meeting; no regional governments would be formed with NF support. Le Monde reported, however, that 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 then weaker NF in the late 1980s, which are generally reckoned to have boosted the Front and damaged the traditional right. 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 now taken 15 per cent of the vote in each of the last three nationwide polls. Second, there are the weakness and internal dissensions of the RPR and UDF, which have not recovered from the humiliating defeat in parliamentary elections last year. Deals with the NF, intended to keep the French centre-right parties together, could just as easily split them apart.