CHARLES DE GAULLE said that politically he was neither left nor right, but ``elsewhere.'' His party, the Rally for the Republic (RPR), is certainly on the right today. But how it fits in French political life, and how it can best present itself to win a larger place in national politics, are questions that are tearing the Gaullists apart.
For the first time, the RPR is responding to its identity crisis by splitting into political factions, something particularly difficult for a movement based on the mystique of a single leader: first de Gaulle, then Georges Pompidou, now Jacques Chirac.
The RPR is France's largest conservative party, but even Mr. Chirac, former prime minister and two-time presidential candidate, admits that the party is ``searching for itself.''
As the right's candidate against Socialist President Fran,cois Mitterrand in 1988, Chirac was abandoned by many center-right voters who found him too conservative. He lost with nearly 46 percent of the vote.
On the other hand, in recent legislative elections, many voters have abandoned the RPR in favor of the extreme-right National Front (FN). In one election in the south of France earlier this month, an RPR candidate won a Socialist town hall in the second round of voting after he made a pact with the FN.
The pact was condemned by RPR national officials, but the victory over the Socialists will no doubt lead other candidates to flirt with contacts of their own with the FN - or at least with its anti-immigration, France-for-the-French politics.
The ``contradiction'' of the right, says French political writer Jean-Marie Colombani, is that while the French who vote for the right want a single conservative party, the activists within the RPR do not.
At a recent one-day national party convention here, most of the 25,000 party militants booed and whistled at Lyon Mayor Michel Noir, the RPR's most outspoken proponent of unification with the center-right Union for French Democracy (UDF). Ironically, Mr. Noir regularly figures near the top of French conservatives' preference for presidential candidates. Polls indicate that a RPR-UDF party could become France's single-most popular.
Yet to RPR activists, joining a conglomeration of the right would be tantamount to giving up their Gaullist soul, their claim to a special calling in French politics.
As the Le Bourget crowd loudly demonstrated its disapproval of the unification line, a longtime party activist said, ``I secretly believe that our only hope for winning back the presidency is to form one strong party of the right. But as all this unfortunate noise testifies, the party faithful do not want it.''
Chirac has tried to take a middle road on the question, calling for ``union'' of conservative forces at election time, but no party ``fusion.'' But that does not reconcile him with many of his own party members, who want a unique, separate - and activist - Gaullist movement.
At Le Bourget, 31 percent of the party delegates voted for a motion, opposed to one with Chirac's name on it, that called for a party less dominated by Paris party chiefs, less ``bourgeois,'' and more open to the average conservative French voter that De Gaulle once attracted. (In a move worthy of de Gaulle himself, Chirac said he would give up the party leadership if his motion received less than 65 percent: He got 68 percent).
The minority motion was proposed by Charles Pasqua, the former interior minister. Mr. Pasqua is a boisterous and personable politician who by his very nature reminds Gaullists that their political engagement is, as one militant from Lille noted recently, ``not so much of the head as it is of the gut.''
For most of the RPR, the aristocratic former President Val'ery Giscard d'Estaing, chief of the UDF, is not their idea of a leader.
Pasqua is out to woo back to the RPR the former activists who have found the kind of frank talker they like in extreme-right leader Jean-Marie LePen, who heads the FN. The party has already taken a step in that direction by proposing a national referendum to outlaw extending the right to vote in local elections to resident foreigners.
The question is not actually on the national agenda, but the Socialist Party favors such a right, and the RPR has found a signature drive to be an excellent vehicle for rallying activists and showing a side FN sympathizers like.
Indeed, the issue of immigration may end up a bellwether test of whether the RPR decides to settle its identity to the center or to the right.
A party militant from the small Paris suburb of Dugny says he's sure the RPR has a bright national future. He points to municipal elections last year to back his conviction.
After nearly 45 years in the Communist Party's hands, Dugny's city hall was won by the RPR.
This is the second article in a three-part series. The first article appeared Monday.