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Stunned, France wonders how far-right juggernaut upset ho-hum election

©Associated Press
April 23, 2002

PARIS -- Much of France woke up stunned Monday, deeply troubled and at a loss to understand a far-right upset in what was supposed to be a ho-hum presidential primary many had ignored.

Incumbent Jacques Chirac was nearly outvoted by Jean-Marie Le Pen, a blustering 73-year-old ex-industrialist who rails against immigrants and once dismissed the Holocaust as a detail of history.

"What a catastrophe, what crushing shame for France," muttered Alain Parent, a Parisian doctor with two young teen-agers. "This just shows how badly our political class has deteriorated and how we are losing our civic sense."

Most of the 14 losing candidates on Sunday's ballot are throwing their support to Chirac, virtually assuring him a second term when he faces Le Pen on May 6.

"We saw what happened in Germany in 1933," said Noel Mamere, a Green candidate, recalling Adolf Hitler's election as chancellor. "We don't want to see that in France in 2002."

But in France's two-stage elections, voters use the first round to deliver a message to the eventual winner. This time, it was extremely loud and very clear.

Even voters with no sympathy for Le Pen reacted against what many described as business as usual by familiar old faces who seemed always to emerge with impunity from serial scandal.

During the campaign the constant issue was "l'insecurite," a code word for growing violence attributed largely to immigrant youths.

Le Pen's jubilant National Front supporters hurried to sully the president. "Le Pen to the Elysee, Chirac to La Sante," they shouted at a victory rally. The Elysee is France's executive mansion. La Sante is a prison.

Reaction was widespread and energetic. Tens of thousands stormed streets in a dozen French cities to protest the results. Many chanted their own version of Le Pen's party initials, FN: "F for fascist, N for Nazi."

The upset eliminated Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, a Socialist, who was considered a shoo-in to face Chirac in a race that polls suggested would be nearly neck and neck.

Shock reverberated throughout Europe, which is dissolving borders and forging an economic union meant to counterbalance the United States.

Calling himself horrified and astounded, European Union Commissioner Neil Kinnock said the election result "throws a great dirty rock into the European political pool."

In Germany, where Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats were routed in a state election by the right-wing Christian Democrats, the French elections sounded on ominous note.

"We are counting on all sensible people in France to make sure that Le Pen is kept out, so that we won't have even more extreme rightists in positions of power in Europe," party secretary-general Franz Muentefering told reporters.

Italy's Northern League, a far-right member of Silvio Berlusconi's coalition, praised the outcome.

"Le Pen's brilliant success rewards the courage and consistency of a leader who has denounced...the very serious risks, in France and Europe, of the immigrant invasions," party leader Mario Borghezio said in several newspapers.

Spain's daily El Pais, in an editorial, attributed the vote to a decline in France, a loss of luster in its economy, its social model, its world influence and the tone of its democracy.

"Nothing else can explain the rout of an honorable politician...at the hand of a dangerous demagogue like Le Pen," it concluded.

The French daily, Le Monde, caught the black-humor mood in Paris with a front-page cartoon. It showed Le Pen as a grinning airplane headed into two flaming office towers marked "Chirac" and "Jospin."

Leaders of Muslim and Jewish organizations found little to laugh about, warning that minorities faced persecution if the National Front gained political power.

"Chirac will have to be responsive to some of this right-wing element, and this could mean a xenophobic tone to his new government," said Shimon Samuels, head of the Simon Weisenthal Center in Paris.

In recent weeks, Samuels said, anti-Semitic incidents were averaging more than 20 a day in France, including firebomb attacks on synagogues, a steady increase since Sept. 11.

"We must rebuild bridges between Muslim and Jewish communities," he said, adding that the far right's harsh tone worked in the opposite direction.

Digesting the news, many Frenchmen agreed with Max Gallo, writer, historian and thinker, who backed the minority candidate, Jean-Pierre Chevenement. He told a radio interviewer that Frenchmen, and Europeans in general, wanted to be heard.

Politics today, he said, are dominated by old-style leaders who steer societies in broad directions, according to established policies, which no longer reflect a changing world.

He concluded, "The voice of the voters was clear: We're no longer represented, we're no longer listened to by this political class, by this oligarchy that says, 'We know what's good for the people.'"

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