TOULOUSE, France — Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of France's extreme-right National Front, grinned and applauded as a party official led an Algerian and a Filipino up to the podium at a political rally.
"Come closer, photographers," the official shouted. "This is the picture you should be taking."
He described the two immigrants as followers of Le Pen, then pointed to the press table, and said: "Listen, Mr. Press. Here is the racism that you are always accusing us of."
Later, past midnight, Le Pen, after changing from his blue suit and bow tie to a sweatshirt, slacks and windbreaker, chatted over a beer at the coffee shop in his hotel. He held his hands out wide, and said:
"What can I do to prove that I am not a racist? Do I have to paint myself black? Do I have to make myself look like one of those singers in one of your American shows--I forget what you call them--oh, yes, your minstrel shows?"
This good-humored show of defensiveness is at the heart of the most troubling phenomenon in French politics today--a general concern about Le Pen and his extreme right, anti-immigration program and its appeal to a vocal and militant minority of French voters.
The strength of the appeal will be tested Sunday when all of France, except for Paris, votes in cantonal elections, something like county elections in the United States.
Few analysts expect Le Pen and his National Front to do better than they did last June, when they won 11% of the French vote for deputies to the European Parliament. Yet Le Pen has dominated the campaign.
History is behind much of the preoccupation with Le Pen. There is a strong current of racist, extreme rightism in French history; it reached its height in pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic Vichy France during World War II.
It may be true, as Le Pen insists, that he is not a racist when he calls for strict control of immigration and the expulsion of some unwanted illegal immigrants. It is certainly true that he is a fairly orthodox rightist on many other issues as he extols patriotism and free enterprise, denounces Communists and bureaucrats, and demands more security against criminals.
Unseemly, Dangerous Current
But many French believe that Le Pen is appealing to an unseemly, dangerous current that ought to remain buried.
Politicians have taken to blaming one another for the rise of Le Pen. The Socialist Party of President Francois Mitterrand and Premier Laurent Fabius regularly denounces the main rightist parties of France for what the Socialists regard as encouragement of and complicity with the extreme right.
More moderate rightist leaders have been ambiguous and confused in their statements about Le Pen. Most contend that he is a product of the Socialist failure to deal with the economy. If unemployment had not risen past 2 million, they say, Le Pen's attacks on immigration would not have made an impact on voters.
But even while saying this, the rightists have been slow to condemn him. Two electoral realities have made it difficult for them. Many of Le Pen's supporters come from the regular rightist parties, and it would make little sense to offend them while trying to woo them back. Also, the French electoral system of two rounds of voting encourages hard bargaining between parties after the first round. Rightist leaders think it would be foolish to denounce Le Pen while there is a chance that his supporters might switch to them.
Still, in the last few days the rightists, smarting under the attacks of the Socialists, have closed ranks against Le Pen and announced that under no circumstances will they bargain for Le Pen's support after the first round of voting in the present election.
There is a feeling among some analysts that the phenomenon of Le Pen might slip away if politicians and journalists paid less attention to him.
Dominique Baudis, a 37-year-old former television journalist who is now the mayor of Toulouse, is one of the few members of Jacques Chirac's Rally for the Republic who denounced Le Pen from the beginning. Yet he feels that too much attention is paid to Le Pen, and he accuses the Socialists of exploiting the problem to divide the rightists.
In an interview, Baudis expressed some surprise at how the news of Le Pen had attracted attention so far away.
"Is there interest even in the United States?" he asked.
In France, he went on, one "cannot turn on the television or radio without hearing something about Le Pen," and added:"The politicians are blaming each other for creating Le Pen. All this is dangerous and unhealthy. When you find a bottle of poison in the cellar, you should bury it at the back of the garden. You should not bring it into the kitchen."