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France: Nationalist Le Pen's Breakthrough Shakes French Political World

France has been shaken by the surprise electoral success of extreme-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who came in second in yesterday's first round of the country's presidential election. The National Front Party leader is now due to face incumbent Jacques Chirac in a run-off in two weeks.

Prague, 22 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Yesterday's unexpected breakthrough by far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in the first round of the nation's presidential election has left the French reeling after what many called a political "earthquake."

With 17 percent of the vote, Le Pen stunned pollsters, politicians, and commentators alike by coming in second to incumbent conservative Jacques Chirac, who garnered slightly less than 20 percent. The two men, long-time adversaries, will now face one another in a run-off ballot on 5 May.

The 73-year-old National Front Party founder and sole leader, who ran the most moderate of his four campaigns for president, spoke in a populist mode to the French last night:

"Don't let yourselves be closed by the old divisions between the left and the right. You, who for 20 years have endured all the mistakes and tricks of the politicians. You, the miners, the steel workers, workers of all those industries ruined by the Euro-globalism of [the] Maastricht [treaty on EU integration]. You, the farmers, who retire on poverty pensions, doomed to be ruined and to disappear; you, too, who are the first victims of insecurity in the suburbs and in the cities, I call on all of you French, whatever the race or the religion, or social status, to come together behind this historic chance of national recovery."

Actually, Le Pen yesterday scored barely 2 percentage points more than he did in the first round of the last presidential balloting, in 1995. The crucial difference was that this time France's left vote was fractionalized among several groups, including three Trotskyite parties. That led to outgoing Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin limping in a poor third, with 16 percent of the ballots -- compared to the 23 percent he won seven years ago when he eventually lost a run-off vote to Chirac.

Jospin, speaking to his supporters two hours after Le Pen, compared yesterday's vote to "a thunderbolt." He called it "a very worrying sign for France and for our democracy." Then, to cries of "no" and audible gasps from the assembled party militants, the 64-year-old Socialist leader made probably his final important political announcement:

"Beyond the demagogy of the right, and the dispersion of the left, which has made this situation possible, I fully assume responsibility for this defeat. And I will draw the [necessary] conclusion by retiring from politics after (crowd screams) the end of the presidential election [in two weeks]."

The "dispersion" of the left saw not only the three Trotskyite candidates together winning more than 10 percent of the vote. A maverick Socialist, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, won over 5 percent, and mainstream left candidates from the Green, Leftist Radical, and Communist parties together garnered close to 12 percent.

The vote for Communist leader Robert Hue, however, was the lowest ever for the party -- at 3.4 percent, almost 1 percent less than the toll for the hunters and fishermen's party. It signals another step in the decline of the once-powerful group as well as the probable end of Hue's leadership.

Altogether, a record 16 candidates were on the ballot, but their number hardly kindled voters' enthusiasm. Close to one out of three eligible to vote -- more than 28 percent -- either abstained or cast blank ballots. But those who cast so-called "protest votes" for the extreme left and right were more numerous than ever before.

Some commentators blame Jospin for failing to hold together the left, thereby making Le Pen's breakthrough possible. On France 2 public television last night, analyst Alain Besancon said that Jospin had mistakenly sought to address all voters in the first round rather than focusing on those with leanings to the left. In so doing, Besancon added, Jospin had reversed the successful electoral strategy of former socialist President Francois Mitterrand who, the analyst said, had twice been elected by appealing for unity in the fractious left in the first round and addressing all voters in the run-off.

Other commentators found Jospin lacking in charisma, which most agreed Le Pen has amply, while others said he sorely missed Chirac's "common touch." In retrospect, his campaign was judged as anywhere from "inadequate" to "disastrous," his program found "blurred" or "unfocused." Several recalled Jospin's "gaffe" of telling journalists, in a moment of unthinking fatigue at the outset of the campaign, that Chirac was "tired and used-up." Whatever their political persuasion, the analysts, said, the French don't like their president -- whom a majority of them elected, after all -- to be treated that way in public.

Jospin was also faulted for not centering his campaign on the issue that counts most for the French -- increasing crime and personal insecurity. Both Le Pen and Chirac made that their chief theme, with the National Front leader linking it to his anti-immigration position and "French first" slogan. But he did so this time in muted rhetoric, which probably contributed to his gaining those 2 percentage points that put him in the run-off.

It is Chirac, of course, who benefits most from Jospin's alleged failings. He has little to do between now and 5 May other than to avoid some sort of serious stumble -- particularly, in a televised debate between the two candidates next week (probably 30 April). Last night, in his message to the French, Chirac was already taking the "high road" that most observers now believe will easily win him a second term:

"I call on all the French to come together to defend human rights, to guarantee the cohesion of the nation, to affirm the unity of the republic, to restore the authority of the state. This coming together is possible and necessary. We are rich in our differences, our freedom and responsibility are our highest values, carried by the same democratic ideal and animated by the same ambition and the same love for France."

Pollsters and analysts last night predicted a Chirac victory of up to 80 percent. That high a majority is unlikely because Le Pen starts with a hard core of 20 percent -- including 3 percent from a National Front splinter group that has rallied to him -- and is bound to pick up some of those other protest votes that went to the extreme left and to mavericks like Chevenement. But short of a disastrous error by the president, a Chirac landslide in the run-off is a pretty good bet.