WHILE Bruno Megret, the No. 2 man in the National Front, did not win his bid for the City Hall of Vitrolles, he is still declaring a victory of sorts.
''We won 42.9 percent of the vote, the second-highest score for the National Front in France and the highest ever for a city in France,'' he says in an interview. ''It's double the score of some cities where we did get elected.'' (The three National Front mayors that were elected in Toulon, Orange, and Marignane won three-way races.)
The vote was enough to ensure eight seats on the municipal council. Front officials here say that is enough to build a political record for the future.
But as National Front members met here recently to discuss their plans, much of the conversation focused on the past.
''It used to be beautiful here,'' says Andre Nouar. ''Life used to be cafes and outdoor markets. That life doesn't exist any more. When the big shopping complexes close on Sunday, nothing happens here. That's the time people used to get together and talk. But now if you come here at night, your car will be stolen.''
For Gilles Lacroix, whose family moved back to France after Algerian independence in 1962, memories of a hostile welcome in the region still rankle.
''They hung a banner in Marseille when my family returned saying, 'Go educate yourselves somewhere else.' Now when North Africans arrive here, we give them an apartment, bonuses for each additional child, and priority for some jobs,'' he says.
While Front officials here recognize they can't turn back the clock to earlier times, they can at least slow things down.
''We have a choice: The car is going over the cliff. We can either go with it or try to slow it down,'' Mr. Nouar says.
''Our main priority now is cultural,'' he adds. ''We can't go back to the farms, but we need to rebuild a social life that is rooted in the traditions of this region.''
Early meetings of the new municipal council have included heated exchanges between the Socialist mayor's team and National Front councillors. But even with a majority on the council, it would be difficult to achieve the Front's goal of a ''national preference'' locally, they concede.
''The competence of the mayor doesn't extend to issues of immigration,'' says Mr. Megret. ''But the mayor can see to it that taxes are not increased, promote more transparency ... have more direct democracy, organize local referendums, and develop an urban politics more at the human level.''
But the key to winning the cultural battle is changing France's ethnic mix, and that can be only be done at a national level. ''We need to organization a decolonization before its too late,'' Megret says. ''We're not a nation that can accumulate a mosaic of cultures, like the US. There is no place in France for a multiethnic culture. It is necessary to do the reverse, to maintain national identity. If not, there will be a social explosion.''
- Gail Russell Chaddock
RIGHT-WING ACTIVISTS: National Front leaders in Vitrolles, France, met recently to discuss plans. From left to right: Alain Cesari, Gilles Lacroix, Anne Marie Charlot, and Andre Nouar.