- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 24, 2002

From combined dispatches
PARIS President Jacques Chirac yesterday said he would refuse to participate in a televised debate against extreme-right election rival Jean-Marie Le Pen out of principle.
"Faced with intolerance and hatred," Mr. Chirac said, "no debate is possible.
"Just as I did not accept any alliance in the past with the National Front, whatever the political price, I will not accept a debate with its leader in the future," Mr. Chirac said at a campaign rally in the western city of Rennes.
Since Mr. Le Pen's stunning defeat of Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin in the first round of presidential elections on Sunday, the National Front candidate has been challenging Mr. Chirac to a debate, a tradition in French elections.
Polls predict Mr. Chirac will crush Mr. Le Pen in the May 5 runoff. The president's backers indicated he would have had little to gain in a debate against Mr. Le Pen, given the far-right leader's tendency to spout anti-Chirac invective.
Mr. Le Pen, a former paratrooper who lost an eye in a street fight, compared the reluctant Mr. Chirac to "a god from Mount Olympus who doesn't want to debate a mere mortal."
Mr. Le Pen's anti-immigration rhetoric and outlandish remarks have long made him an outcast among the political class. He once called Nazi gas chambers a mere "detail of history."
France's main political parties, meanwhile, reviewed battle strategies yesterday for June parliamentary elections to halt any further advance by the extreme right.
Mr. Chirac's Rally for the Republic Party urged all conservatives to rally around him in the campaign for the National Assembly. Some leaders promptly agreed to join forces but centrist leader Francois Bayrou refused to sign up.
On the left, the Greens suggested a single candidate for all left-wing parties in any constituency where the National Front could present a strong challenge.
"We have to stop all our little quarrels and try to unite as much as possible," said Michele Alliot-Marie, head of Mr. Chirac's Rally for the Republic Party, on RTL radio.
Mr. Le Pen's sudden surge means National Front candidates could hold the balance of power in 150 to 200 of France's 577 constituencies. Although few or none will win, they could split the right-wing vote and help a leftist candidate to victory.
Mr. Le Pen did this in 1997 to help Mr. Jospin's left win the early ballot, which Mr. Chirac called in the vain hope of returning his right-wing government to power to push through a tough austerity program.
Mr. Jospin announced Sunday he would quit politics, leaving the left without a standard bearer as it fights to regain support in the parliamentary elections on June 9 and 16.
Philippe Douste-Blazy, pro-Chirac parliamentary floor leader of the centrist Union for French Democracy (UDF), later said several groups of Gaullists, centrists and liberals had agreed to form a Union for a Presidential Majority.
"This is not a single party. It is a large movement of the center right and the right," he told journalists.
But Mr. Bayrou, the national leader of the UDF, ruled out any role in what he called "a party of yes-men" for Mr. Chirac.
"Do you think that a single party and all the quarrels that will go with it is the proper response to what happened on Sunday?" he asked journalists after a party meeting.

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