Le Pen no longer mightier than the socialists? FRENCH ELECTION: MARSEILLE

Jean-Marie Le Pen enters the Caf'e de la Poste trying to shake hands. The crowd hisses. They boo. They break into the communist Internationale, singing ``Workers of the world, unite.'' ``Le Pen, it's Hitler, it's Mussolini, it's Franco,'' yells one of the crowd. ``We don't want him here.''

France's extreme-right leader is fighting to keep his political momentum in next Sunday's legislative elections. Polls show his National Front Party averaging a paltry 7 percent of the vote. Given France's majority-vote electoral system, that means the Front could lose all of the 32 seats it won in 1986 under the former system of proportional representation.

The polls picture Le Pen trailing an unknown socialist, Marius Masse, in Marseille by 27 to 35 percent in the first round, with the remainder of the vote going to conservative and communist candidates. In the two-candidate second-round runoff, Le Pen would be crushed by 37.5 to 62.5 percent.

``Le Pen has peaked,'' predicts the confident Mr. Masse. ``Most Frenchmen just don't accept his ideas.''

Le Pen will not fall without a battle. When informed of the poor polls, the burly 59-year-old ex-paratrooper bet Michel Brul'e, the director of the BVA polling agency, 100,000 francs that he would win his race. Brul'e accepted.

``The pollsters are part of a media plot,'' Le Pen told the Monitor. ``They practice intellectual terrorism, political apartheid - excluding me by painting me as a devil.''

Despite the bombastic language, Le Pen may have a point. The National Front usually does better on polling day than forecasters predict. Only three weeks ago he received 14.4 percent of the vote in the presidential elections.

Le Pen's anti-immigrant message found fertile ground in Marseille, a rough-and-tumble port of 900,000, with unemployment of 14 percent and a huge Arab population of 130,000. ``We gave them Algeria,'' bitter Marseillais sneer, ``and now they want to take France.''

In presidential voting, Le Pen finished first in France's second most populous city with a staggering 29.7 percent.'' Although a long-time Paris resident, he proceeded to ``parachute'' into a legislative district in the northern suburbs, saying ``Marseille has sent me a declaration of love.'' (French politicians need not reside in the districts they represent.)

His landing was not smooth. Scared by the extreme right's strength, anti-Le Pen forces counterattacked, with Gerard Bismuth, a leader in the large local Jewish community, founding a Marseilles Friendship Club.

``Until Le Pen,'' marvels Mr. Bismuth, ``Jews here were passive politically.''

Instead of a traditional right-wing district, Le Pen is competing in a socialist bastion, where Mr. Masse's father first was elected deputy three decades ago. His 47-year-old son emphasizes his local roots - and his loyalty to popular President Fran,cois Mitterrand.

``My two best weapons,'' says Masse, ``are my birthplace and President Mitterrand.''

Le Pen hopes to deflect these disadvantages by copying Charles de Gaulle and uniting traditional right-wingers with disgruntled working-class voters. Many former communists voted for him in the presidential election, and he says many more will turn out to keep him in the National Assembly.

``We are recreating De Gaulle's old coalition,'' Le Pen asserts. ``I don't just get votes from the right, I also get them from the left.''

His strategy is to do well enough to establish a local power base in Marseille. Mayoral elections are set for next March, and a strong showing in the present campaign, even if he loses, would place him in a position to dictate terms to mainstream conservative candidates.

``If Le Pen wins 40 percent now, then he can dominate the right in Marseille,'' worries Bismuth, the Marseille Friendship Club founder. ``No one will be left to throw water on the extremist fire.''

As mayor, Le Pen says, he would turn Marseille into a laboratory for his anti-immigrant policies. France's decentralization law gives municipalities significant say on the allocation of social and housing benefits, and Le Pen wants to restrict these to the French and give the French priority in obtaining housing or schooling.

``Until the socialists solve the problems which are killing us, immigration and security, `` Le Pen says, ``I will crush them.''

What strikes an interviewer is Le Pen's confidence in his ideas. In a part of the world with vivid memories of fascist tyranny, a candidate who trumpets thinly disguised racism and appeals to nationalistic and authoritarian values believes he has the future on his side. Even the United States, he warns, soon could nourish its own Le Pen.

``The demographic explosion in the third world is a threat to all of the West,'' he says. ``I give you 10 years before you start screaming against your Mexicans.''

He plows on into the hostile Caf'e de la Poste. He shakes the bartender's hand. He smiles. He autographs photos. When he hears the Internationale, he responds, ``I prefer another song: the Marseillaise.''

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