This is the France the tourist never sees -- not that of baguettes, ch^ateaux, and haute-cuisine feasts, but of couscous, stark high-rise apartment buildings, and racial disturbances. More than 10,000 of France's 4.5 million ``guest workers,'' Algerians, Moroccans, and Senegalese, who arrived during the 1960s and 1970s to do the country's dirty work, live in this maze of dilapidated towers outside of Lyon.
For the French, many of whom are conditioned to village life, Les Minguettes provokes horror images. Jean-Marie Le Pen hopes to turn those images into a political victory in Sunday's legislative election. He and his National Front party are campaigning on a platform that blames immigrants for taking away jobs from the French and causing crime.
The National Front may win as much as 8 percent of the vote in the elections, and, with the ruling Socialist Party expected to fare poorly, could well hold the key to forming a government majority.
The traditional conservative leaders, such as Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac, former President Val'ery Giscard d'Estaing, and former Prime Minister Raymond Barre, have pledged not to bring the National Front into a coalition. But they are clearly concerned about the support Mr. Le Pen can muster, and some of their followers have offered suggestions on circumstances under which Le Pen's party might be acceptable in a coalition.
Le Pen's challenge turns the March 16 election into a social as well as a political referendum. The question asked is: Can France, which has long been viewed as a homogeneous society, successfully transform itself into a multiracial one?
So far, the answer is unclear. A few years ago, Le Pen was dismissed as a fanatic, and his fiery anti-immigrant rhetoric was ignored. The National Front scored about 1 percent in opinion polls.
Then unemployment soared and crime began to increase. People appeared to pay more attention to Le Pen's slogan: ``2 million immigrants equals 2 million unemployed.'' And in elections last spring for delegates to the European Parliament, Le Pen's National Front won more than 10 percent of the vote.
Le Pen has succeeded in forcing the established political parties to toughen their stance toward immigrants. Most parties now urge a crackdown on the inflow of foreign labor. Even the Socialists have made moves to tighten controls on legal immigration and to ferret out illegal workers. They also have offered financial incentives to encourage immigrants to return to their native countries.
The neo-Gaullist Rally for the Republic and moderate Union for French Democracy, fighting together to end the Socialist majority in Parliament, go further. In their joint platform, they urge that the national identity be protected by curtailing somewhat the rights of legal immigrants. At Les Minguettes, the crackdown has already been felt: Municipal authorities have banned any more immigrants from moving into the neighborhood.
``We have changed the debate,'' says Bruno Megret, National Front candidate from the area bordering Les Minguettes. ``Everyone now accepts that Frenchmen come first, that our culture should be protected.''
But that success may not automatically translate into power for the National Front. In recent months, leading conservatives have spoken out against Le Pen. Former Prime Minister Barre, himself a candidate in Lyon, devoted a major speech to the issue, assailing the injection ``of hate'' into the campaign. Major-party candidates listened. They began avoiding the immigration topic. And Le Pen's rating in opinion polls started declining.
``The politicians have declared an informal truce,'' says Abdel Kader, a sociologist studying Les Minguettes. ``Instead of amplifying the question during the campaign, they have calmed the climate.''
Guy Fischer, the Communist mayor of Les Venisseux, the town that includes Les Minguettes, says the National Front won 20 percent of the votes in his district in the elections for the European Parliament in 1984. Thanks to ``the realistic attitude of the parties,'' he says, he expects it to do worse in the coming vote.
Another bad sign for Le Pen is the emergence of the so-called Beurs -- second-generation North African immigrants.
The Beurs define themselves as both French and Arab, drawing on both cultures. ``Beur is Beautiful'' is the slogan of a growing army of musicians, artists, writers, and filmmakers. There is a Beur newspaper, a radio station, and casting agency.
Many Beurs, a number of whom are reaching voting age, consider France their home. More and more, they are standing up for their rights, determined to fight discrimination and make a place for themselves in French society.
The Beurs are trying to gain political clout. Last year some of them formed a group to combat racism. The group, SOS Racism, has sold more than 1 million badges in the shape of an open hand, bearing the slogan, ``Hands Off My Buddy.''
Sociologist Kader says that by 1987, more than 500,000 Beurs who are French citizens will be able to vote for antiracist candidates.
``We want to stop Le Pen,'' says Assia Ayet, president of the ``Passarelle'' association, a Beur job-training group at Les Minguettes.
``We will stop him, too.'' Friday: Can Socialists and conservatives cooperate?