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Profile : Le Pen: Dark Side of the French Soul : Crude, powerful and dangerous, the onetime barroom brawler with the mesmerizing oratory has built a career on hatred. His party is France's third-strongest force.

May 29, 1990|RONE TEMPEST | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — Standing shoulder to shoulder under the flame-shaped symbols of the National Front, mesmerized by the anti-immigrant polemics of their square-jawed hero, the crowds that follow French right-wing political leader Jean-Marie Le Pen are an odd assortment of society's rebels and rejects.

Tattooed skinheads wearing T-shirts proclaiming "Hitler Was Right" stand next to prim, provincial schoolmarms. Fastidious monarchists from Paris' finer neighborhoods share space in the ranks with disaffected Communist factory workers from the dreary industrial suburbs. Rebel Roman Catholic priests, defenders of the traditional Latin Mass, rub elbows with neo-Nazis.

"France for the French," Le Pen tells them. (Enthusiastic cheers.)

"Three million unemployed and three million immigrants are too many," he asserts. (Lots of knowing head-nodding.)

The rally might be at any of a hundred favorite National Front haunts--at the party's annual parade for Jeanne d'Arc in the heart of Paris; in a stadium in one of the tense immigrant-worker neighborhoods in Marseilles; at a converted hangar at the old Le Bourget airport, where Lindbergh landed. But the words and blustery style remain the same. "The barbarians are at our doors," Le Pen warns. (A near-hysterical response.)

Born into a family of fishermen on the Britanny coast, educated in law in Paris, where he was also a rugby player and a barroom brawler, the 61-year-old Le Pen is a powerful, demagogic speaker evocative of American politician George Wallace in his prime.

"He is by far the best political speaker in France today," said Dominique Moisi, associate director with the French Institute of International Relations in Paris, "and that is why he is so dangerous. He is crude, vulgar--probably a fascist--but he is a very able politician."

After battling for years on the fringes of the French political scene, Le Pen and the extreme right-wing National Front political party he formed in 1972 have surpassed the Communists as the third most important political force in France, behind the Socialists and the parties of the mainstream right. Some recent polls show the National Front with support from as much as 17% of the French electorate.

A recent secret report by the French domestic intelligence agency, Renseignement Generaux, discreetly leaked to several journalists, was even bolder in its estimates of Le Pen's strength. The report estimated that if elections were held tomorrow, the National Front could gain as much as 20% of the French vote. "That means that no majority on the right could be formed without Le Pen," said one alarmed political analyst.

As it is now, the National Front holds only one seat in the 577-member National Assembly. The next parliamentary elections are not slated for France until 1993. The next presidential election is not until 1995. Opponents of Le Pen are hoping that the resurgent enthusiasm for the extreme right--born out of what they see as a general cynicism toward French politics and politicians--will die down before these votes.

In the meantime, however, Le Pen has emerged as the undisputed leader of the extreme right in all of Europe--the pivotal figure at the increasingly frequent meetings between similarly minded politicians from other European states.

By exploiting widespread fears in France about the swelling immigrant population, mostly North African Arabs, and flirting with traditional right-wing anti-Semitism that dates to the turn-of-the-century Dreyfus trial, Le Pen has built a solid, if disparate, following.

After the macabre desecration of a Jewish graveyard in the southern French city of Carpentras earlier this month, French Interior Minister Pierre Joxe accused Le Pen, whom he called a "racist and provocateur," of creating a political climate that led to the attack.

"Like all racists," said Joxe, "like all those who express their anti-Semitism in explicit or implicit fashion, he (Le Pen) is obviously one of those responsible. . . . "

In a television appearance on the eve of the Carpentras attack, Le Pen complained that there were too many Jews in the French media. "That's the first time since the end of World War II that anyone has dared to make a statement like that," said French lawyer and Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld.

Such performances on national television have prompted efforts by some of Le Pen's opponents, notably the Communist Party, to have him barred from the airwaves. In addition, French mayors have been increasingly reluctant to allow National Front meetings in their cities. One of the biggest setbacks for Le Pen came last week when the mayor of his hometown in Brittany denied permission for a meeting next month that would have included Le Pen and other European leaders of the extreme right.

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