Juppe bid to deny Le Pen poll gains

France's extreme-right National Front, which took a record 15 per cent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election, has spent the past six weeks nurturing the hope that it could win a significant slice of local power in Sunday's municipal elections.

While that hope is still there, it suddenly finds itself directing its fiercest words not against the enemy on the left, but against the Gaullists of Jacques Chirac and Alain Juppe.

In an interview given to a Marseilles newspaper before a campaign visit to the city yesterday, Mr Juppe had advised voters that a vote for the National Front would be a wasted vote.

Voting for it, he said, would be useless, because the Front was not the "arbiter in French life''. His words harked back to the Front's claim after its showing in April that it held the balance of power between left and right.

Yesterday an official statement from the Front's headquarters said that Mr Juppe was making a mistake in rejecting a pre-election pact between his RPR party and the National Front because the right now risked losing a number of cities to the Socialists and Communists. "Jacques Chirac,'' the statement went on, "has a short memory; he was able to become president only because Mr Le Pen gave his supporters the freedom to vote for him [Mr Chirac] in the second round.''

Mr Le Pen actually recommended that his voters cast blank ballots, although in the event a majority of them voted for Mr Chirac.

The combination of Mr Juppe's remarks and the National Front's rapid and caustic response shows how high the stakes are on the political right in the run-up to the first round of the municipal elections. They are particularly high in Marseilles, where the left is weak following the disgrace and bankruptcy of Bernard Tapie, the present centrist mayor has decided he lacks sufficient support to stand again, and the mainstream right has to contend with the National Front's 22.3 per cent showing there in the presidential election.

That Mr Juppe went to Marseilles last night to back the RPR candidate, Jean-Claude Gaudin, at a public meeting - even though his prime ministerial duties have hardly left him time to campaign on his own account for mayor of Bordeaux - suggests he and Mr Chirac want to prevent any conspicuous "triumph'' by the National Front on Sunday, even if it means councils could be lost to the left.

After its performance in April, the National Front had been angling for a pact with the mainstream parties of the right that would guarantee it council seats, if not overall control, in areas where it is strongest, mainly in the east and south of the country. Mr Chirac, however, has always been dead set against collaboration with the National Front in any form. Mr Juppe's interview gave the last word on the possibility of a pact, and it was "no''.

In the last two municipal elections (1983 and 1989), when the right was out of power at the centre, local deals were sometimes concluded between individual RPR/UDF and National Front candidates, and some were being struck this time. One was in Beauvais, north of Paris, where Serge Dassault, a member of the family that controls the aeronautical company, had included two National Front members in his council list.

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