- The Washington Times - Monday, April 22, 2002

BORDEAUX, France France paid the price for its political apathy yesterday, when a record number of abstentions in the first round of the presidential election allowed the extreme-right Jean-Marie Le Pen of the anti-immigrant National Front to take a stunning second place behind incumbent Gaullist President Jacques Chirac, forcing the incumbent socialist premier Lionel Jospin into third.
"This is a bolt of thunder, of deep concern for France and for democracy," Mr. Jospin said in a speech to his supporters conceding the worst defeat for the French left since the founding of the Third Republic 130 years ago.
Mr. Jospin immediately announced his retirement from public life and the remaining senior socialists called on their supporters to rally behind Mr. Chirac to ensure the defeat of Mr. Le Pen in the second round of elections, May 5.
Mr. Le Pen, a former paratrooper, took 17.5 percent of the vote, according to exit polls reported by France-Inter, behind the 19.6 percent of Mr. Chirac but driving Mr. Jospin with 16.2 percent into a humiliating third place.
Though these results are only preliminary, to be confirmed by the official count today, few changes are expected.
"My success represents the rejection by the French electorate of those who have governed the country Mr. Chirac and Jospin for the last five years," Mr. Le Pen told a triumphant rally of his supporters chanting "Le Pen president."
"France has spoken through me," Mr. Le Pen declared. "France has said that she wants to safeguard her identity and her virtue against the alien flood, against the criminality that terrorizes our towns and cities, against the threat to our values and our families."
In his bastion of southern France, Mr. Le Pen took between 32 percent and 40 percent of the votes in Provence and the Cote d'Azure. But to the horror of the left, Mr. Le Pen also won the socialist bastion of Lille in the north, taking 19 percent of the vote in this working-class heartland, ahead of Mr. Chirac with 17 percent and Mr. Jospin with 16 percent.
Nonetheless, Mr. Le Pen looks condemned to a sharp defeat in the second round of elections, when the vast majority of French voters who spread their ballots among a confusing 16 candidates face a stark choice between a flawed Chirac and a potentially dangerous Le Pen.
"This is a cataclysm of terrifying proportions," declared two senior socialist ministers and politicians, Finance Minister Laurent Fabius and former Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn, calling on their supporters to join an "anti-fascist front" and vote for Mr. Chirac to defeat Mr. Le Pen in the next round.
Mr. Le Pen's success should be kept in proportion. He and his party in previous elections had won 15 percent of the vote, and the addition of just 2.5 percent is hardly a revolution except for the socialist collapse.

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