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Socialist Tycoon, Far-Right Leader Tilt in French Election

March 3, 1992

MARSEILLE, France (AP) _ They slap backs, talk sports, trade insults. In a nation weary of colorless politicians, the campaign slugfest between two bare-knuckled populists is one of the best shows around.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the extreme-right National Front, is pitted against Bernard Tapie, a poor boy-turned-tycoon whom a desperate Socialist Party grudgingly made its champion.

The battleground is the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region, the southeast corner of France stretching east from this rundown Mediterranean port to the chic beaches of Nice and north to the Alps.

At boisterous public meetings and in TV sound bites, Le Pen and Tapie attack the establishment and each other in blunt terms that have saddled both with slander suits.

Tapie gained notoriety last month by declaring, ″If Le Pen is a bastard, then the people who vote for him are bastards.″

Le Pen, sued for describing the Socialist government as ″corrupt gangsters,″ says Tapie insults his electorate and refuses to debate him on television.

Though not a Socialist, Tapie persuaded party leaders his popularity as owner of the Olympique Marseille soccer club made him the only leftist capable of stopping Le Pen in regional elections March 22.

Tapie, 49, grandson of a Communist union official, grew up in a Paris slum. He made millions as an industrial entrepreneur. His holdings include Adidas.

″What we are seeing is the growing importance of the personality of the candidate, compared to the platform of the party,″ said Jacques Jaffre, director of the SOFRES polling firm.

That is a major shift in France, where traditional right-left divides are collapsing amid economic and social crisis.

The Le Pen-Tapie battle is part of campaigning for 22 regional assemblies, the first nationwide election in three years.

The vote is expected to show major discontent with President Francois Mitterrand’s Socialist government, which is beset by high unemployment and a dearth of new ideas.

Le Pen is expected to be chief beneficiary of protest votes. Others will be environmental and clean-government slates, like Generation Ecology and Generation Truth.

Because of its colorful candidates, Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur is the most closely watched arena. With 4.7 million people, the region is France’s third- largest.

The major local issue is unemployment, a third above the national rate of 9.8 percent. Another is a large community of North African immigrants, blamed by some residents for crime and economic decline.

Le Pen wants the immigrants expelled. Polls show his local support nearly double his 15 percent national backing. Crowds chant his name at rallies.

His staunchest backers include European exiles from Algeria, thickly settled in the region. They blame the Socialists and mainstream right for France’s defeat 30 years ago by Algeria’s pro-independence revolutionaries.

Le Pen is running for the presidency of the 107-seat regional assembly from his stronghold in Nice. City Councilman Jacques Bixio warns that if Le Pen wins, ″The right and left will be fighting in the streets.″

But Le Pen is an underdog. Though polls show him with 27 percent support to Tapie’s 18 percent, Jean-Claude Gaudin, a conservative who now heads the assembly, has 30 percent.

Tapie, who says his business acumen could help create jobs, calls Gaudin a ″zero″ and accuses him of corruption.

Such rough talk embarrasses Socialist leaders. Tapie has been losing support and dissident Socialists are forming independent slates.

The Socialists may eventually throw their support behind Gaudin to block Le Pen when assembly members choose their president. But Tapie says disillusionment with all political parties is high.

″The parties haven’t known how to adapt to the needs of the people,″ he says. ″People want political parties to function for them, but the parties don’t want to believe that.″

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