- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 5, 2002

PARIS An estimated 41 million voters in France will go to the polls today to choose between a right-of-center candidate and an extreme right-wing nationalist in one of the most tense elections for president in recent memory.
Such is the choice between the incumbent conservative Jacques Chirac, 69, and the 73-year-old former paratrooper, Jean-Marie Le Pen, with his anti-immigrant and anti-European platform that the vote in the final runoff today has been likened to a referendum on democracy in France.
"We are not in the habit of telling our readers how to vote, because our job is to inform the public as openly and objectively as possible about the choices they face," the conservative daily Le Figaro said in a rare front-page editorial. "But it is without the slightest hesitation or shadow of doubt that we will vote for Jacques Chirac."
The official campaign ended Friday, with Mr. Chirac saying Mr. Le Pen viewed him as his "personal enemy" and the far-right leader already saying he is the victim of wide-scale electoral fraud.
Mr. Le Pen's first-round victory stunned France, leading to mass demonstrations as the left mobilized to expunge the shame of its defeat.
A coalition supported by most political parties, the press, artists, sports personalities and religious leaders has come together to urge a Chirac victory, with the left hoping the sheer size of his triumph will be an endorsement of its dominant role in the anti-Le Pen campaign.
Even the Communist daily L'Humanite, under the headline "Drown Le Pen," urged people to vote for Mr. Chirac. It was also a first for the mainstream liberal dailies Liberation, France-Soir and Le Parisien, which said the French Republic was too fragile to admit anyone but Mr. Chirac.
The campaign drew 1.3 million anti-Le Pen May Day protesters onto the streets of towns and cities across the nation in the biggest demonstrations seen in more than a generation.
"It is a fact, a simple fact of history," said Le Monde, one of France's most respected dailies, "that Jean-Marie Le Pen, presented to French voters as a candidate in the second round of this decisive election, has himself practiced torture in the uniform of the French army during the 1954-1962 Algerian independence war a historical fact which evokes war crimes." This, it said, was far more serious than the unproven charges of financial impropriety leveled at Mr. Chirac.
[In an interview on Israeli television yesterday, Mr. Le Pen, who in 1987 called the Nazi death camps a "detail" in history, said French Jews risked nothing if he were to be elected, Agence France-Presse reported.
[French Jews "risk nothing with me and even have an interest in voting for me," Mr. Le Pen told Israel's private Channel 2. "The Jews are brilliant, and they make it known," he added.
[Mr. Le Pen said he had "taken extremely clear positions against anti-Semitic attacks" in France in recent months. "I would be ready to go to Israel" on a state visit if elected, he said.]
During the first round of the election April 21, Mr. Le Pen came in second, edging out Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin for the runoff today. Mr. Le Pen received 4.8 million votes against Mr. Chirac's 5.6 million and Mr. Jospin's 4.6 million. More than 6 million voters stayed away in what analysts have called a silent protest.
With the pressure on for those who stayed away and those who voted for Mr. Jospin to vote for Mr. Chirac something even Mr. Jospin urged his supporters to do the polls are predicting a victory as high as 80 percent of the electorate for the incumbent today.
Despite forecasts of a large majority for Mr. Chirac, the newspapers said there is concern that if Mr. Le Pen builds significantly on his first-round showing of 16.86 percent, his xenophobic and anti-European views will move to the center of political debate. A strong showing would also help Mr. Le Pen's National Front in the parliamentary elections in June, which will have a crucial effect on the ability of the next president to carry out his program.


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