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Insults fly as French parties go to war French parties suffer identity crises as NF civil war strains centre-right

EVEN BY the fractious standards of French politics, this has been a breathtaking week.

The centre party has spent four days insulting - and receiving insults from - its nominal allies on the right. And Lionel Jospin, the Socialist Prime Minister, has run away with the nationalist and law-and-order clothes of the Gaullists.

The warring wings of the far-right National Front have been to the courts to grapple over who has the right to use the party's name. Daniel Cohn- Bendit, one of the leaders of the 1968 student revolt, resurrected as a green liberal, continues to cause havoc in Mr Jospin's pink-red-green coalition.

Mr Jospin and the Gaullist President, Jacques Chirac, once the best of co-habiting enemies, are growling at each other. New right-wing parties seem to spring up like mushrooms.

Can all this really be explained by the fact that there is a European election in June? The elections appear to have thrown the French political establishment - as well as the anti-establishment - into turmoil. In truth, any other excuse would probably have done just as well.

The underlying causes of the tensions in French politics are two-fold. The inherent instability of the Jospin-Chirac, left-right cohabitation, is beginning to show after 19 relatively untroubled months. And the explosion of the National Front (NF), far from strengthening the centre-right, has shaken its ramshackle structures to the point of destruction.

Last weekend, the Rhone-Alpes regional council had to elect a new president to replace Charles Millon, one of the centre-right regional barons installed last March with NF votes against the instructions of national parties. Mr Millon, who has since started his own right-wing party, La Droite (the Right), was tipped out of office in Lyon on a technicality. The meeting to choose his successor caused another fire-storm in the centre-right.

The Gaullist RPR and the right-wing Democratie Liberale (DL) wanted to install aMillon supporter, also backed by Jean-Marie Le Pen's "official" wing of the NF. The centrist UDF refused. It accepted Socialist votes to install one of its own members, Anne-Marie Comparini.

Both sides accused the other of betrayal. The UDF leader, Francois Bayrou, said his nominal Gaullist and DL allies had breached the solemn pledge never to make pacts with the NF. The others accused Mr Bayrou of breaking the promise not to make deals with the left.

The unseemly row is important for two reasons. It reduces the possibility that Jacques Chirac might call a snap presidential election next year, two years early. Secondly, it raises the intriguing possibility that the UDF, now stripped of its more conservative elements, might drift into alliances with the left at local level, even possibly at national level.

This would fundamentally realign French politics. Mr Bayrou has denied any such intention. But he has let it be known that he will run his own list in the European elections in June - destructively splitting the centre- right vote - unless the Gaullists and DL agree to run on a pro-European ticket.

Such a prospect is unthinkable for the Gaullist leader, Philippe Seguin, a partially recanted Eurosceptic who faces the erosion of the party's grass roots by a profusion of small nationalist parties. Mr Seguin seemed in the past couple of days to be trying to widen the breach with the UDF, not to heal it. He ordered Mr Bayrou to "choose sides" and accused him of trying to "remake the old dream" of a centre-left alliance.

To confuse the issues further, Mr Jospin chose this week to make a series of tough, Blairish statements on law and order and the need to ensure the survival of an "irreducible reality" of nationhood in Europe. With both themes, he was encroaching on Gaullist ground.

In a television interview on Wednesday night, Mr Jospin appeared more rattled than confident. The eruption of Mr Cohn-Bendit, as the standard- bearer of the greens, has shaken the Socialist-Communist-Green coalition. On Wednesday the Communists rejected the possibility of a joint list with the Socialists in the European poll.

In the NF, Bruno Megret, the party's de facto Number Two who has been in open revolt against Mr Le Pen since December, will hold a conference near Marseilles a week tomorrow. The meeting will "depose" Mr Le Pen and elect Mr Megret as the leader of the self- proclaimed "democratic" NF.

Mr Le Pen went to court this week to deny the Megretistes the right to use the party name. A decision will be announced today. Mr Le Pen had forgotten to renew the title National Front as an official trademark. One of Mr Megret's lieutenants quietly registered the words in his own name in December.