MARIGNANE, France -- Accusing him of behaving like an aging tyrant and siphoning off party finances to pay for a lavish lifestyle, followers of Europe's most notorious right-wing figure, Jean-Marie Le Pen, plunged his party into crisis yesterday by splitting it into rival factions.
Meeting in a municipal basketball and handball arena in this industrial suburb of Marseilles, 2,300 rebel members of the 70-year-old ex-paratrooper's extremist National Front elected Bruno Megret, 49, a former high-ranking civil servant and Le Pen's estranged lieutenant, as their president.
To many specialists on French conservatism, however, Megret is more extremist than Le Pen.
The nearly 3-decade-old National Front is the largest far-right party on the European continent, and, in addition to their other charges, the dissidents complained that Le Pen has damaged its cause by his habit of shooting his mouth off.
Most notoriously, the blustery veteran of the French Foreign Legion once dismissed the organized killing of 6 million Jews by Nazi Germany as a simple "detail" of World War II.
In recognition of past services, the dissidents named Le Pen honorary president of what they renamed the National Front -- National Movement. But he declined the title with icy contempt.
"There's only one National Front, the one I created a little less than 30 years ago," declared Le Pen, who refused to attend the two-day meeting. In a television interview yesterday in Paris, Le Pen estimated that he can still count on the loyalty of "90-95 percent" of the Front's 42,000 members.
Megret and his followers pose a challenge to Le Pen's grip on the 3 million voters who regularly support the Front's anti-foreigner, "French first" policies. Even one of Le Pen's three daughters has thrown in her lot with the rebels.
Experts on French conservatism consider Megret and many of his followers further to the right than Le Pen. Many spring from the so-called New Right, a xenophobic intellectual current that considers the presence of foreigners in France to be dangerous.
"In a way, Megret frightens me even more than Le Pen," said Ariane Chebel d'Appollonia, a specialist on the far right.
Pub Date: 1/25/99