This is the pause between hunting seasons in southwest France, a time when the guns are silent, the treehouse blinds are empty and the birds fly free. But even so, Jean Saint-Josse and his friends have been very successful hunter-gatherers--of votes.

The little rural protest party they founded a decade ago stunned pollsters, analysts and Paris politicians by winning nearly 2 million French votes, almost 7 percent of total votes cast, in the June 13 European Parliament elections--nearly as many as the Communists, a venerable political force in France, and within breathing distance of the surging Green Party.

The name of his party, unlike that of most parties, says what it is about, in gently descending order of importance: Hunting, Fishing, Nature, Tradition.

"We want to restore the balance between the 80 percent of the French people who live on 20 percent of the land and the 20 percent who live on 80 percent of the land," said Saint-Josse, party leader and part-time mayor of this village south of Pau. "This is about rural values and rural rights, rural development and rural education, not just hunting."

The party--Saint-Josse prefers "movement"--scored impressively in this part of the country and elsewhere on a theme of outrage against meddling European bureaucrats and squabbling mainstream politicians, and in defense of the rural customs and traditions threatened by the encroaching power of cities and urban ways.

CPNT, as the party is known by its French initials, is sending a delegation of six to the parliament and already is cutting deals with other minor European parties to form a voting bloc loosely concerned with "rurality."

The people who voted for it are not shy about saying why.

"Hunting is our art de vivre"--loosely translated, ethos or way of life--said Marc Becanne, who raises white Porcelaine hounds and hunts quail and turtledoves in Verneque, another hamlet 85 miles from here. "If they suppress it, we lose our identity. We're very attached to our traditions."

"I hunt because my father hunted and my grandfather hunted and my great-grandfather hunted. It's part of one's education," said Bruno Lance, who hunts pheasant and partridge and bigger game in the Oise River valley north of Paris.

This rural eruption is reminiscent of the Sagebrush Rebellion in the western United States two decades ago. Playing the bad-guy role of Washington is Brussels, the Belgian capital where pan-European regulatory institutions are supposed to impose on every nation consistent protections on migratory waterfowl and limits on the seasons and daily hours of hunting.

"They're knocking down borders without asking us what we have to say," declared Saint-Josse, who is 55 and runs a small publishing operation here.

CPNT scored impressively across the rural southwest and in the northeast, where there are heavy concentrations of France's 1.5 million hunters.

In the Somme department, north of Paris, CPNT came in first with 27 percent of the votes, many of them from factory workers who usually vote Communist. In other places, it drew votes from the mainstream right parties, which are in a state of historic disarray and poisonous infighting.

Saint-Josse and his campaign manager, another founding member named Jacques Lapeyre, stress that this is not a party of right or left--Saint-Josse is of Gaullist origins, Lapeyre is a former Socialist--and refuse to throw in their delegation's votes with the big mainstream blocs in Strasbourg, France, where the European Parliament meets.

Even so, the party was helped in this--its third try for seats in the European Parliament--by the prominent, combative role of the French environment minister, Dominique Voynet of the Greens.

Demonized for city slicker arrogance and environmental radicalism, she and the head of the French Green list, former student activist Daniel Cohn-Bendit, helped get out the hunters' vote as effectively as their own.

France is singular in Europe in its hunting passion. Unlike elsewhere on the continent, hunting here is a pastime up and down the social spectrum, practiced by the titled and dirt-poor alike--a class-blind quality French and American hunters share.

The right to hunt was won in the French Revolution of 1789, wrested from the nobility along with much else, and remains as hardily defended as the Second Amendment in the United States. There are more than twice as many hunters in France as in Britain, whose fox-hunting traditions are better known, and four times as many as in Germany, which has a significantly larger population.

Perhaps because France is the least densely populated country in densely populated Western Europe, or because its farmers are heavily subsidized--by European Union partners--France remains a place where rural traditions live on.

The family pilgrimage from Paris to grandma's in the country is a Sunday ritual more prevalent than church. Much of what is most interesting about recent French culinary developments are products and combinations from the terroir--the distinctive regions of deepest France.

According to official statistics, hunting is an almost exclusively masculine practice, although Saint-Josse says internal analysis indicates near parity between male and female CPNT voters. One of the six new European legislators is a woman.

Although many hunters said it was a father-son tradition and a male bonding experience of the first order, Lance reported that most of the hunting he does is with wives and children, the same families who gather five or six times a year for a day's outing of hiking and picnicking, for which shooting animals is only a pretext and sideshow.

"Hunting is like a ripe apple I pick from the tree in my garden. Taking a duck or a rabbit is like that," said Jacques des Brosses, a grain farmer and pony breeder in Chennebrun, 130 miles west of Paris, who also voted CPNT. "Hunting is a way to do something together. It's not hunting itself. It's friendship. That's why the young like it too."

On the other hand, in this part of the country, when the birds and ducks fly south in the fall, "the factories are empty and the stores are closed. Everyone calls in sick and goes hunting. They take their vacation in October, not in August," said Becanne.

The city vs. country theme stirred by the hunters' vote is another striking way in which the French, as hunters, are more like Americans than their fellow Europeans. That rough-and-ready individualism, that primal attachment to land and mistrust of cosmopolitan values is often smothered in caricatures of the French.

The French, in turn, favor caricatures of the American Wild West to symbolize all they distrust, from "cowboy capitalism" to the savage gunplay on American streets and in schools. Yet they have a "don't-tread-on-me" spirit in their own right, and CPNT glommed onto it.

There are differences. The right to keep and bear arms is regularly infringed upon in France as elsewhere in Europe, without much protest or flouting of the law.

This is a continent that takes government regulation as a matter of course, where very few handguns are in private hands and where homicide rates are dramatically lower than in the United States.

Saint-Josse's movement, which has attracted the attention of Paris political analysts, has been accused of being "anti-European," a synonym for recalcitrant nationalism in a unification process that is blurring borders and eroding sovereignty.

Saint-Josse rejects that interpretation of the party's message or appeal. He said he believes in a "Europe of differences" or a "Europe of colors" that still respects such distinctive traditions as hunting at night, say, or eating cheese made from unpasteurized milk. This is the quandary of Europe's future as it seeks a balance between its federal and unitary impulses, between harmonizing and leaving alone.

CAPTION: Jean Saint-Josse, leader of the Hunting, Fishing, Nature, Tradition party, which won almost 2 million French votes in a June election, promotes hunting and other rural traditions against encroaching urban practices.