Jean-Marie Le Pen loves to provoke. Until recently, the trademark of the extreme-right leader consisted of fierce attacks against Arab immigrants. Now the former paratrooper has begun taking on other targets, from Jews to those with AIDS.
Asked recently by a radio interviewer for his views on historians who deny the Holocaust happened, Mr. Le Pen replied blandly, ``I think it's a detail in the history.''
When the interviewer protested that 6 million deaths were no mere ``detail,'' Le Pen was adamant. ``Are you trying to tell me,'' he asked, that the gas chambers ``are a revealed truth which everyone is obliged to believe?''
The remarks underlined the extreme right's new assertiveness. Recent voting has shown a splintering to the far right in Denmark, Norway, West Germany - and most of all, in France. Le Pen's National Front won about 10 percent of the vote in last spring's parliamentary elections.
Far-right parties have surfaced in Europe several times since the end of the World War II, and none, not even France's National Front, now is close to winning power by itself. But their present upsurge goes beyond simple numbers. Analysts fear the far right is poisoning the political debate, helping ideas considered taboo since 1945 to reemerge as respectable. In West Germany, for example, Le Pen's statement echoed the widespread discussion about the true nature of Nazism.
``Le Pen seems to have followed the debate in Germany launched by conservative historians who want to show that National Socialism was not a unique phenomenom and can be compared to Soviet massacres or simple horrors of the war,'' complains Zeev Sternhell, Israeli historian on fascism. ``It's incredible that such a debate could take place. Twenty years ago, it would have been impossible.''
The simple passing of time explains much of this historical revisionism. The post-war generation has grown up, Sternhell says, and it feels less constrained by the past than did its parents.
But there is more. Unlike the heterogenious United States, European countries traditionally have viewed themselves as homogeneous entities. In the present climate of high unemployment and sluggish economic growth, analysts say the extreme right exploits old insecurities about national identity.
Central to Le Pen's message is that immigrants take away jobs and destroy France's moral backbone. The pin-striped technocrats governing the country, he argues, don't understand the common folks' problem. What France needs, he concludes, is a strong leader who will give her back respect.
This logic attracts a heterogeneous constituency. Many supporters come from young, first-time voters who have no previous political loyalty and feel detached from the world around them. Others are former communist voters whose old party has no answer to present-day economic problems. Others are disgruntled right-wingers who dream of a return to the days when France was a world power.
``Le Pen's success,'' worries Rabbi Rene Sirat, France's chief Rabbi, is ''to say out loud what many think in private.''
Even after the Holocaust remark, polls show Le Pen could capture some 10 percent in next year's presidential election. If so, Prime Minister Jacques Chirac and Raymond Barre, the two leading conservative candidates, fear he could siphon off enough of the right-wing vote to tip the result in favor of the outspoken socialist candidate.
``Without Le Pen, can the conservatives have a majority?'' asks a leading strategist for Socialist President Francois Mitterrand. ``I am doubtful.''
The conservatives are divided over how to deal with this threat. Some, led by Interior Minister Charles Pasqua, aim to appease Le Pen. They have entered into agreements with the National Front in four of France's 22 regional councils, and now want to tighten France's nationality law. Instead automatically giving a French passport to anybody born in France, their proposed bill would oblige children of foreign parents to choose their citizenship.
But other conservative leaders, mostly younger, openly oppose Le Pen. Le Pen provoked them by describing AIDS patients on a television show last spring as ``sidaiques'' after sida, the French word for the disease, and suggesting that they be quarantined in ``sidatoriums,'' an allusion to crematoriums.
Although some National Front leaders further distanced themselves from their leader following these remarks, Le Pen was unrepentant.
``This crisis may turn out in Le Pen's favor,'' says Jean-Marie Colombani, political editor of Le Monde.