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France's Radical Rightists May Lose Momentum in Vote

WHEN a political party promises to phase out income taxes, one might expect voters to take a keen interest - especially in France, where the top income brackets face a tax of nearly 60 percent.

But even with a worsening economic slump souring French voters on traditional political parties, France's tax-abolition party looks poised to make few gains in next month's legislative elections. Indeed, some observers here believe the Jean Marie LePen's France-for-the-French National Front (FN), could see its popular support decline in next month's vote.

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With polls showing France's other two principal "alternative" parties - the environment-oriented Greens and the Ecology Generation - advancing with enough support to actually surpass the ruling Socialists, failure by the FN to move forward would constitute a hard blow for Mr. LePen and his forces.

"France is not on the verge of putting the National Front behind it, but neither is there any momentum for big new gains," says Colette Ysmal, a specialist on the French right at the Political Studies Institute in Paris. "The waves of new support of the '80s and early '90s are finished."

The FN's stagnation in France comes as both a relief to much of French society and a surprise to the FN itself.

Just last year FN leaders predicted their party was on the verge of jumping from the 10-to-15 percent range in national voting to the 15-to-20 percent range. LePen has confidently trumpeted his anticipation of a 20 percent tally. But after taking 14 percent in last spring's regional elections, polls now show the party attracting 11 percent to 12 percent of the vote.

Ironically, the rise of more violent far-right nationalist movements elsewhere in both western and eastern Europe may be one factor contributing to the French disenchantment with the FN.

"I have students who voted FN in the last elections, but whose thinking changed completely after the anti-immigrant violence in Germany," says Alex Turk, a French senator from Lille, where he is also a professor of political science. "They'd tell me, `Things are going too far, that's not at all what I have in mind.' "

Adds Mrs. Ysmal, "Traditionally there is very little attraction to violence among the far-right-leaning French, so events in Germany might have led more than one [FN sympathizer] to think twice."

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Other reasons for the FN's loss of support are diverse, political observers say. LePen still suffers among some potential supporters for his high-profile opposition to France's participation in the coalition against Saddam Hussein. More damaging is the adoption of tough FN language on such sensitive issues as immigration, asylum, and European integration by some figures within the traditional right.

In addition, the FN's focus on immigration may not be right for the times. "Unemployment has buried immigration as a campaign issue," Mr. Turk says. "And not many people think of LePen and his entourage as a likely source of solutions to our economic problems." This helps explain why the FN plays down immigration and focuses on the threat of a "globalizing economy" in its revised platform.

But perhaps the most important reason is that after more than a decade of a high-profile, media-grabbing presence (the party is 20 years old) the FN has been unable to break 15 percent. "The FN is suffering from lassitude," adds Turk. "If a party doesn't look like it's gaining ground, people get tired of it. They want their vote to be useful."

Playing a role in this phenomenon are election laws governing the national legislative vote. France's two-step, runoff election system eliminates most small-party candidates in the first round - although most FN candidates are pledging to stay in the second round whenever possible (a score topping 12.5 percent is required).

The FN has one seat in the outgoing parliament - and even winning one or two more in the March elections won't be enough to put the wind back in its sails, analysts say.

Still, no one is predicting the FN's demise, and in fact many observers believe brighter days for the party could be just ahead. The key may be the victory next month, as now anticipated, of France's traditional right - which would mean a conservative prime minister and government in the place of today's Socialists.

"LePen has one more chance," says Turk. "If the moderate right is unable to find solutions to the problems worrying the French, then a segment of disgruntled right-wing voters will consider the FN again. With everyone anticipating two very difficult years ahead," he adds, "that may be just what LePen is counting on."

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