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France: Over A Million Demonstrate Against Far-Right's Le Pen

Well over a million French took to the streets on 1 May in an effort to mobilize votes against far-right National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who will face incumbent conservative Jacques Chirac in a presidential run-off vote on 5 May. But there are indications that Le Pen could still win about a third of the votes cast -- which would amount to a moral victory with considerable impact on French politics.

Paris, 2 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- By official estimates, the May Day demonstrations against extreme-right presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen brought out some 1.3 million French. About 400,000 of them marched in Paris. The remaining protesters gathered in about 400 localities, large and small, throughout the country.

France has not seen so many demonstrators in its streets for almost 20 years. They were almost all of leftist leanings, with mainstream right followers largely absent -- in apparent obedience to the order of their leader and candidate, incumbent President Jacques Chirac, who said they should express their views only at the ballot box.

Speaking at the Elysee Palace, Chirac ignored his rival, opting instead for a general call for harmony and good will: "This [May Day] is a heartfelt and celebratory tradition, which expresses respect that everyone must have towards each other. The need for respect in our country is even higher than ever."

Marching together in Paris were union leaders -- who seldom publicly express political preferences -- and the leaders of the Communist and Green parties. Some -- but far from most -- Socialist ministers were also present, ignoring the order of their outgoing Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who had asked them not to attend. The demonstrators were notably young, from 15 to 25 years old -- with a considerable number of them, those under 18, still unable to vote.

At a separate leftist rally in Paris yesterday, recently elected Socialist Mayor Bertrand Delanoe summed up the demonstrators' values: "We are France, but a France with the values of resistance, the fight against racism, anti-Semitism, a France against [the World War II collaborationist government of] Vichy, against the fascism of the 21st century, a France that is blue, white, and red (the colors of the French flag) -- that's you."

Not far away from where Delanoe spoke, at Le Pen's National Front Party's annual May Day rally, up to 20,000 of his followers were chanting, "Le Pen! President! Le Pen! President!"

In a speech lasting an hour and a half, Le Pen first compared France's workers to Joan of Arc: "We are here by the tens of thousands on this May1st 2002, four days before a historical day, to celebrate Joan of Arc and the workers of France. Yes, I compare the men and women of my country to the patron saint of France, because they are the incarnation of duty."

Le Pen then launched into a bitter attack against Chirac for his alleged corruption during 20 years as mayor of Paris, president of France and head of the neo-Gaullist Rally for the Republic Party. The National Front leader called Chirac a "super-liar" and "the king of fraud," and went on to say, "Chirac is today the man who incarnates French corruption, [the man in whom] the ruling oligarchy expresses itself -- [an oligarchy] that holds the country in its claws in order to benefit from it rather than serve it."

Le Pen's rhetoric was directed especially at two groups of voters -- French workers and disillusioned leftists. Analyses of voting preferences have shown convincingly that for some years now the National Front has received more support from workers than either the Socialist or Communist parties. Le Pen is seeking to hold on to those votes, and perhaps increase their numbers.

At the same time, Le Pen is hoping to pick up new support from among the traditional Socialist voters who, unhappy with Jospin's five years as prime minister, voted in the first round for other leftist candidates with no real chance of success. They included three Trotskyists, a maverick Socialist ,and the first black woman candidate. All told, they collected more than 17 percent of the vote -- more than either Jospin or Le Pen.

Even Socialist militants who backed Jospin may not find it easy to vote for Chirac, their traditional adversary, in the run-off. Their uneasiness matches that of the outgoing prime minister himself who -- unlike many of his senior ministers -- has not found it possible to clearly urge his supporters to vote for Chirac.

It took Jospin five days after his 21 April defeat to issue a simple written statement calling on his supporters to "express their rejection of the extreme right" -- but without mentioning Chirac by name. There are credible rumors that Jospin himself may not even vote in the second round, and many Socialist militants have openly said they won't, either. And if they don't, Le Pen's percentage of the vote will increase.

In the first round, a record 28 percent of the eligible electorate -- or 11.5 million voters -- chose not to vote, and another million cast blank ballots. How many of them will choose to vote on 5 May, and what their choices are likely to be, are open questions. Pollsters are loath to commit themselves publicly on either question.

Given the failure of all of France's major polling institutions to foresee Le Pen's unexpected breakthrough on 21 April, their reticence is understandable. Late last week, one major polling group (SOFRES) said Le Pen's margin would range from 20 to 40 percent, while another (IFOP) put his range at 19 to 26 percent. By common agreement among all the pollsters, however, there were to be no new poll results issued publicly this week.

But after requesting anonymity, some poll analysts told our correspondent that Le Pen could win as much as one-third of the run-off vote. They note that the far-right leader starts from a hard-core base of close to 20 percent -- his 16.7 percent first-round vote plus that of a far-right splinter group that quickly rallied behind him.

The pollsters were asked, Could Le Pen pick up 13 or 14 percent more among disillusioned leftists and those who abstained in the first round? The pollsters allowed that this was very possible, and that such an outcome would change the balance of French politics.