Jean-Claude Gaudin is a squeezed centrist. The conservative parliamentary leader stepped out of his car to begin a campaign tour and bumped into a group of extreme right National Front supporters of Jean-Marie Le Pen. He held out his hand.
``You see, we all are friends,'' Mr. Gaudin exclaims. Inside the Mille Colons Caf'e, he tells the Monitor, ``The 100,000 Marseillais who voted for Le Pen are not racists, xenophobes, and anti-Semites.''
In the first round of parliamentary voting Sunday, Mr. Gaudin's conservative alliance did better than expected, winning almost 40 percent of the vote. But to prevent a Socialist majority after Sunday's runoff, it must pick up the National Front's 10 percent of voters without scaring off its more moderate supporters.
Faced with this squeeze, Gaudin has decided to lead his troops down the hazardous path of accommodation with the extreme right. On Tuesday afternoon he anounced a formal pact with Le Pen. To avoid three-way races splitting the conservative vote, some National Front candidates will withdraw from the race in return for the withdrawal of Gaudin's own weaker candidates. Conservative chieftains have ruled out any similar countrywide accord with the National Front. They criticized the Marseille deal. Gaudin is unrepentent.
In France's second largest city the Front capitalized on a wave of resentment against a large immigrant population to run ahead of Gaudin's candidates in eight voting districts. It is too strong to be ignored.
If we didn't work with them, ``we would leave the power to the Socialists,'' he explains. ``Mitterrand says he wants to open to the centrists, but in reality what he wants is to turn us all into Socialists.''
Cohabitation put Gaudin in this fix. His moderate conservatives won power in the 1986 legislative elections and decided to ``cohabitate,'' or share power, with Socialist President Fran,cois Mitterrand. The differences between right and left were blurred, and frustrated voters flocked to Le Pen. ``We stopped talking about fundamental Catholic values,'' says Dominique Tian, a centrist assemblyman in Marseille. ``That left our voters ill at ease.''
When Charles de Gaulle dominated French conservatism, he attracted working-class supporters with his grandiose vision for France. De Gaulle's successors, including Gaudin, exchanged this vision for a more realistic and technocratic style, and came to be seen as too close to the moneyed classes.
``Gaudin, he's the typical BMW bourgeois,'' Lorrain de Saint Affrique, a National Front adviser says in a snickering tone. ``He wears a Burberry raincoat, and his favorite sport is tennis.''
Some BMW bourgeois who feel more comfortable with Mitterrand's Socialists than Le Pen's rightists are running on Socialist lists for the legislative elections. Others who reject the National Front look toward Raymond Barre, hoping to build an independent centrist force similar to West Germany's Free Democrats, an indispensable coalition party to both left and right.
These centrists say National Front extremism is political poison, sickening the large majority of Frenchmen wanting moderate rule. Compromise with Le Pen, they say, and voters will reject you. In her Manpower Jobs office, Christine Bellocq greets Gaudin with a warning.
``Le Pen is dangerous. Today he talks about Arabs, tomorrow he'll talk about Jews,'' Ms. Bellocq says. ``Mr. Gaudin should stay away from him.''
But Gaudin believes that attacks against Le Pen backfire.
He says they fail to attract moderate voters such as Ms. Bellocq back from the Socialists or frustrated rightists back from the National Front. The only solution, from his perspective, is to cooperate with the Front and take a tougher line on the sensitive issues which motivate its voters.
``There are too many immigrants here, and there's a phenomenon of rejection,'' Gaudin explains. ``We must try to convince Le Pen's voters that we also understand.''
The strategy is to absorb National Front voters, and then the Front itself, into Gaudin's alliance. The danger is that Le Pen will benefit from moderate support and eventually absorb the centrists into its Front. When asked about this possibility, Gaudin loses his temper.
``You Americans, you're all the same. You equate Le Pen with Hitler,'' he says. ``You favor our Socialists.''