MARIGNANE, France — Accusing him of behaving like an aging tyrant and siphoning off party finances to pay for a lavish lifestyle, mutinous followers of Europe's most notorious right-wing figure, Jean-Marie Le Pen, plunged his party into crisis Sunday by splitting it into rival factions.
Meeting in a municipal basketball and handball arena in this industrial suburb of Marseilles, 2,300 rebel members of the 70-year-old ex-paratrooper's extremist National Front elected Bruno Megret, 49, a former high-ranking civil servant and Le Pen's estranged lieutenant, as their president.
To many specialists on French conservatism, however, Megret is even more extremist than Le Pen.
The nearly 3-decade-old National Front is the largest far-right party in Europe. The dissidents, in addition to their other charges, complained that Le Pen has damaged its cause by his habit of shooting off his mouth.
Most notoriously, the blustery veteran of the French Foreign Legion once dismissed the organized killing of 6 million Jews by Nazi Germany as a simple "detail" of World War II.
In recognition of past services, the dissidents named Le Pen honorary president of what they named the National Front--National Movement. But he declined the title with icy contempt.
"There's only one National Front, the one I created a little less than 30 years ago," declared Le Pen, who refused to attend the two-day meeting. In a television interview Sunday in Paris, Le Pen estimated that he can still count on the loyalty of "90-95%" of the Front's 42,000 members.
'French First' Rebel Gains a Following
Megret and his followers, however, pose a challenge to Le Pen's grip on the 3 million voters who regularly support the Front's anti-foreigner, "French first" policies. Le Pen's former strategist and ideologue, Megret has been followed into rebellion by a large part of the party bureaucracy and brain trust, reportedly including 62 of the Front's 95 local secretaries and half the 1,700 members of its internal security service. Even one of Le Pen's three daughters has thrown in her lot with the rebels.
"The conventional wisdom is that Le Pen has the voters and Megret has the bureaucracy," said Franklin Hugh Adler, a professor of political science at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., who is writing a book on the National Front and attended the meeting in Marignane.
Internal revolt against Le Pen broke out after he announced that if he proved unable to lead the Front's candidates in June elections for the European Parliament, his wife, Janny--glamorous but politically inexperienced--and not Megret, would. Megret objected, and, last month, Le Pen stripped him of his deputy's post.
One recent poll found that Le Pen's Front would win 9% of the vote in the elections, compared with 4% for the Megret-led faction.
For Megret, a graduate of the prestigious Polytechnique engineering school who also received a master of science degree at UC Berkeley, a change in party leadership is meant to serve as a "second stage of the rocket" to carry the National Front from virtual pariah status to a bigger share of power.
He is a proponent of trying to cut deals with the country's traditional conservative parties, a strategy the Front has implemented with some success in several of France's regions.
"We represent legitimacy," Megret reassured Front members who gathered in Marignane, one of four French cities where the National Front controls City Hall. "We have abandoned by the wayside those who remain turned to the past."
A number of experts on French conservatism, on the other hand, consider Megret and many of his followers further to the right than Le Pen. Many of the dissidents spring from the so-called New Right, a xenophobic intellectual current that considers the presence of foreigners in France to be dangerous to the nation's well-being and survival.
"In a way, Megret frightens me even more than Le Pen," said Ariane Chebel d'Appollonia, a specialist on the far right who teaches at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris.
"Two days ago, I told Megret on television, 'Why don't you call your party the Nazi Party so things are clear for everyone?' " said Lorrain de Saint Affrique, who was expelled from the National Front in 1994 for criticizing Megret's "Hitlerian" entourage.
In scenes that would have seemed surreal a year ago, Le Pen's name was hissed and booed in Marignane as speaker after speaker at the self-styled National Front "extraordinary congress" denounced his actions as leader of the party he founded in 1972. Some hinted that Le Pen's periodic outbursts and other behavior--for example, attending a male strip show in Paris last summer--are proof of a secret compact he has with President Jacques Chirac and other members of the political establishment to make sure the Front alienates enough voters so it will never arrive in power.