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Le Pen link has right in chaos

THE right side of the French political spectrum was plunged into disarray yesterday. Leaders of the moderate right in five regions defied orders from their national headquarters and made tactical alliances with the ultra-right and xenophobic National Front to hold on to regional power.

All five, all members of the UDF centre-right grouping, including Charles Millon, the former defence minister, were immediately suspended by the national leadership. At least two other regional leaders of the Right are expected to accept the backing of Jean-Marie Le Pen's party in delayed votes in their regional assemblies on Monday. The head of one of the more right-wing components of the UDF, Alain Madelin, was said to have congratulated one leading rebel on his actions.

The worst-possible scenario - a U-turn by the national leadership of the traditional right, reversing its moral and strategic rejection of deals with the Front - appeared to have been avoided. There was another shaft of light in the moral gloom. A UDF leader in Franche-Comte resigned the regional presidency on a point of principle because the NF regional councillors had voted for him. Overall, however, the Gaullist RPR and the UDF were left in confusion. Although no Gaullist regional barons defied the party yesterday, at least two are expected to do so on Monday. A former RPR general-secretary, Jean-Francois Mancel, ejected by the party for demanding deals with the Front, predicted that the centre-right of French politics would "explode" next week, with elements of the UDF and Gaullists forming a new party and others joining the Front.

The Socialist former culture minister, Jack Lang, spoke of a "black day for the Republic ..." He accused the regional politicians who made deals with the Front of "reneging on promises to the people" and "slurping the vile soup offered by the ... neo-fascists".

The crisis on the right follows regional elections last Sunday which produced a confused electoral pattern all over France. The Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin's, left-of-centre coalition topped the poll in 11 out of 21 regions in France. But it won an outright majority in only one.

In at least nine regions, the National Front was left holding the balance of power. The national leadership of the "traditional", or respectable right, had pledged beforehand to make no deals with the Front and to accept minority left-wing regional governments if necessary.

Once the election results came in, local centre-right leaders all over France, desperate to cling on to regional power after their defeat in national elections last year, began to make secret or open deals with the NF. Despite warnings from the centre-right national leadership, and from Jacques Chirac, the Gaullist President of the Republic, there was widespread revolution when regional assemblies gathered to choose their presidents yesterday.

A breaking of the mould of right-wing politics in France is now possible, with dangerous implications for French democracy.