National Front Win Worries French Moderates

PARIS -- France's mainstream parties, looking anxiously to a general election in 13 months' time, looked for answers Monday about how the extreme-right National Front won control of a fourth southern town.

The stunning victory of Catherine Megret, 37, wife of the anti-immigration party's No. 2, in a municipal election in Vitrolles, a soulless commuter town north of Marseille, was a shock, if not a surprise, to the French political establishment.

Despite calls for a national mobilization against the front, Megret, whose husband, Bruno, made no secret that he would wield the real power, beat sleaze-tainted Socialist Jean-Jacques Anglade by 52.48 percent to 47.52 in Sunday's runoff vote.

Center-right cabinet ministers played down the result as a local phenomenon due to a discredited Socialist incumbent.

"Without diminishing an election result, it must be kept in proportion. ... We are looking at a very particular situation where the National Front has exploited a difficult situation," centrist Labor and Social Affairs Minister Jacques Barrot said.

Socialist Party No. 2 Daniel Vaillant acknowledged that Anglade was a problem but attributed Megret's win to the failure of mainstream conservatives to back the "anti-fascist" candidate in sufficient numbers.

Political scientists said it was the first time the National Front had won a head-to-head runoff with an absolute majority. Its previous successes had been in triangular contests against mainstream left- and right-wing candidates.

Coming on top of 1995 victories in the nearby towns of Toulon, Orange and Marignane, it showed how deeply the party of Jean-Marie Le Pen has taken root in the southeast Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur region, with its explosive mix of crime, corruption, Arab immigration and high density of former French settlers from North Africa.

"Who can say that the National Front is not capable of becoming France's first party? If you judge from the Vitrolles microcosm, you realize that it's possible," Le Pen exulted.

But analysts said the movement, which advocates expelling 3 million immigrants and reserving jobs, housing and welfare benefits for French nationals, was far from that goal.

Pollsters said national support for the Front had barely increased since Le Pen won 15 percent in the 1995 presidential election. Nevertheless, they said, the Front could win enough votes to influence the outcome of the March 1998 general election by maintaining its candidates on the second round in up to 200 constituencies.