NF set for fourth victory

Desperate efforts were being made yesterday to prevent a fourth French town hall from falling into the hands of the far right after a startlingly clear victory for the National Front in a satellite town of Marseilles.

The first round result in Vitrolles, in the Bouches-du- Rhone, might be be written off as a local aberration. The Socialist mayor of the town is being investigated for fraud and the area has high unemployment and racial tensions. But confirmation of the National Front victory in the second round this Sunday will have powerful, national reverberations.

Vitrolles would be the fourth town, all in a small arc from the Rhone valley to the Mediterranean coast, to fall to the National Front. More important are the personalities involved. The nominal victor on Sunday, with 47 per cent of the vote, was Catherine Megret, an electoral novice. The real victor was her husband, Bruno Megret, 47, second-in-command of the National Front, plausible rising star of the French extreme right, and possible successor to the NF founder and leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Mr Megret is banned from running because he exceeded the legal limit on election expenses when he lost the mayoral election in Vitrolles in June 1995. The entire election was so riddled with "irregularities" - on all sides - that it was declared void by the Council of State.

A proxy victory for Mr Megret in the re-run would confirm him - a product of the meritocratic French establishment and former member of President Jacques Chirac's RPR party - as the attractive but sinister face of the second generation of NF extremism.

Unlike Mr Le Pen, a former paratrooper with one eye and a bombastic manner, both Mr Megret and his wife have the comfortable middle-class looks and credentials to extend the reach of the NF further into the ranks of the "respectable" right.

The Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, and other national and regional centre- right leaders, yesterday called on their own candidate to withdraw from the second round, to give the Socialist incumbent mayor a better chance of defeating the NF. But the Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette, insisted that the candidate of the respectable right should run again - making an NF victory virtually certain.