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.