- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 23, 2002

That was the surprising choice of almost 20 percent of the French electorate in the first round of their presidential election Sunday. Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the anti-immigration National Front, recently said of himself, "I am a bit like Zorro. Everyone knows that Zorro exists but they never quite see him." Unfortunately, the world may be seeing a great deal of Mr. Le Pen, who defeated socialist Lionel Jospin and advanced to the May 5 runoff election against incumbent Jacques Chirac. French voters hopefully will see through his demagoguery, or else Mr. Le Pen whose career has been built on hatred of foreigners and minorities could be France's next president.

It would be easy to laugh off someone at least someone over the age of 10 who believes in Zorro, but Mr. Le Pen's antics have not usually been that amusing. In 1987, for example, he called the Nazi gas chambers a mere "detail of history." After September 11, he opined that the terror attacks were some vindication of his predictions of an apocalyptic clash of civilizations. His main point is opposition to immigration. He claims to be a Francophile, and not a racist. But earlier this year, Mr. Le Pen compared immigrants to parasitic birds that won't leave no matter how much noise is made. According to the London Times, he said it was not a matter of "expelling" parasitic elements. "We'll allow them to leave," he said. Well, that's mighty French of him.

Mr. Le Pen's success so far is attributable to his appeal to French insecurity and a string of corruption charges dogging Mr. Chirac. Mr. Le Pen demagogues the idea that the "French identity" is being destroyed by immigration, particularly of Muslims from Africa. Mr. Chirac, who is running for a second term as president, gained the lowest percentage of the vote just over 19 percent of any president since 1958. His socialist rival, Mr. Jospin, ran a lackluster campaign. The French economy, like many others in Europe, is highly taxed and semi-socialist. Resentment of any challenge to their economic house of cards stirs anger in French voters, making them vulnerable to radicals like Mr. Le Pen.

The French have left themselves with two candidates for president, neither of whom should be elected. Mr. Chirac may be unfit for office for being corrupt, but Mr. Le Pen is unfit because of the corruption of his beliefs and statements that unmistakably echo 1930s Germany. It is a great shame that there no longer is a third choice. What France needs is a conservative who can remedy the French economy, not a radical who will only make current problems worse.

Mr. Le Pen's delusions go beyond Zorro to reach even France's most serious endeavor, soccer. In 1998, when France won the World Cup, Mr. Le Pen said, "I claim this victory for the National Front." Precisely what his party did on or off the playing field is lost to us. The French should buy Mr. Le Pen a sword, a cape and a black horse, and let him ride away. Far away.

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