Round One in France

April 28, 1995

French Socialist Lionel Jospin delightfully humiliated the pollsters with his first-place 23.3 percent in the first round of his nation's presidential election. The left lives. But Mayor Jacques Chirac of Paris, former prime minister, is the front-runner in the run-off between the top two on May 7. He starts with the base of his own 20.8 percent plus the third-place 18.6 percent (total, 39.4 percent) of his fellow Gaullist, Edouard Balladur.

The French are bemused by the phenomenon they call "the excluded" -- the destitute, North African immigrants and 12.3 percent unemployed left out of French prosperity -- a concept pretty close to "the marginalized" of Mexico or "underclass" of the United States. That explains the alarming high vote for extremists.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, the National Front leader who wants to cleanse France of North African immigrants, won 15 percent of the vote, the best he has done in 11 years of rabble-rousing. But Mr. Le Pen is unable to throw his supporters, who have minds of their own, either to Mr. Chirac or Mr. Jospin. At 67, the man who expresses the fears of many Frenchman is unlikely to be a contender seven years hence. No heir is apparent.

A rival candidate on the right wing fringe got 4.7 percent. On the far left, the Communist (8.6 percent) and Trotskyite (5.3 percent) together garnered almost 14 percent. That's one-third of the votes on the extreme ends of the spectrum.

The run-off offers clear alternatives of the mainstream left and right, muddied by both opponents and proponents of further European integration in Mr. Chirac's camp. Mr. Jospin is an unambiguous supporter of a common currency.

Mr. Chirac's challenge is to unify the dominant center-right, and after May 7 the whole country. No one needs to tell him that. He has already spurned a deal with Mr. Le Pen and wooed supporters of Mr. Balladur, who endorsed him. With their first-round votes reversing what the polls predicted, Mr. Jospin has received a shot of adrenalin and Mr. Chirac a dose of humility, which is good for them both.

Mr. Jospin had better enjoy these two weeks. Barring the unforeseen, the May 7 run-off will ratify the dominance of the conservative Rally for the Republic under the presidency of one of its founders, Jacques Chirac.

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