Le Pen accuses NF rivals of `racism'

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THE TIME BOMB of personal hatreds, rivalries and suspicions at the heart of the ultra-right National Front finally threatens to explode this week, with far-reaching consequences for French politics.

An atmosphere of fearreigned at the NF headquarters in Saint Cloud yesterday, as leading members of the party turned their well-honed powers of vituperation and paranoia against one another. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party's president, stalked the corridors, suspending senior officials he suspected of supporting hisrival, Bruno Megret.

After months of submerged warfare, Mr Le Pen, 70, has publicly accused Mr Megret of leading "a minority of extremists, even racists" in a putsch against him (the first time that Mr Le Pen has admitted that any part of his party is racist).

The NF secretary-general, Bruno Gollnisch - a Le Pen loyalist - said on television that the party was the victim of a "take-over bid by foreign powers", including the "American secret services". Mr Megret, 49, may be many things, including a racist, but it is difficult to picture him as an agent of the CIA.

His followers, far from cowed, are pushing for an emergency congress of the party in February. The rebels believe that if the grass roots could be consulted, they could end Mr Le Pen's 26-year reign as "Chef" of the most powerful extreme nationalist party in western Europe. More likely, the far right - a fragile alliance of mutually loathing groups - is about to split into separate movements. This would give the centre-right parties a golden opportunity to reconquer the ground lost since Mr Le Pen's breakthrough in 1984.

A Stalinesque purge of Mr Megret's supporters has gathered pace since a turbulent meeting of the NF national council at the weekend, when Mr Le Pen was booed by some senior NF members.

One leading Megret supporter, Pierre Vial, compared Mr Le Pen to Louis XVI: An out-of-touch monarch, unable to comprehend the insurgent forces around him.

Mr Vial was ejected from the party on Monday.

Another leading official, Serge Martinez, was ordered to prepare a hit- list of local activists and officials who supported Mr Megret. He refused and was ordered out of the party by Mr Le Pen in person as he walked down a corridor in the NF headquarters. In a press conference, Mr Martinez said a "witch-hunt" was in progress and the "very survival of the NF is at stake".

Mr Megret is unlikely to walk out; but he may be pushed. He is estimated to enjoy the support of 60 out of 100 members of the central committee and 17 out of 40 members of the party's political bureau, as well as the majority on several regional councils of the party.

Mr Megret's supporters, mostly young or middle aged, believe that he can move the party out of the ideological ghetto created by Mr Le Pen and begin to form electoral alliances that would bring them, and some of their extreme nationalist and xenophobic ideas, to power.

Mr Le Pen and his supporters, including most of the party's old guard but also many younger front activists, accuse Mr Megret of being prepared to exchange the party's ideological purity for a few cabinet posts. Most of all, perhaps, the struggle is about Mr Le Pen's refusal to accept that the NF is no longer his personal fiefdom.