French pour into the streets to protest rightist's victory

A shaken Chirac calls on voters to rally for him

April 23, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

PARIS - Thousands of people took to the streets across France yesterday in growing protests at the unexpected success of the extreme rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen in qualifying to face President Jacques Chirac in the final round of the French presidential elections next month.

High school students marched out of classrooms in Lyon, Strasbourg, Reims, Rouen, Angers and Besancon to hold rallies against Le Pen.

Students chanted slogans equating Le Pen with Adolf Hitler and calling his National Front a fascist organization.

"Mussolini: 1922. Hitler: 1933. Le Pen: Never!" students at a rally in Strasbourg cried.

"You're out, Le Pen - the young are in the streets!" others in Lyon shouted.

They were joined by university students, who swelled the ranks of the demonstrations in each city to between 1,000 and 4,000.

"F for fascist, N for Nazi!" some screamed in reference to Le Pen's party, while others carried a newspaper cover with Le Pen's photograph and "No" headlined across it.

Up to 10,000 protesters marched in Paris overnight shouting "Le Pen is a fascist!" Police fired tear gas at hundreds of demonstrators who threw barriers in the Place de la Concorde. Earlier, late-night protests were held in Grenoble, Lille and Bordeaux.

Le Pen, 73, who once called the Nazi gas chambers "a detail in history," benefited from the huge field of candidates that split the vote, an apathetic electorate and a wave of anti-crime fervor to edge out Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.

With 99.33 percent of the vote counted, Chirac, a conservative, had more than 19 percent of the vote, Le Pen nearly 17 percent and Jospin just over 16 percent.

Le Pen's victory over Jospin was described by leaders of the left and the right as a "political earthquake." Until Sunday, Chirac had been expected to face Jospin in the runoff May 5. Polls showed that once the field of candidates was narrowed to these two, Chirac and Jospin were neck and neck in the race.

The results, however, should make it far easier for Chirac, 69, to win re-election.

Polls suggest that Le Pen, a former paratrooper with a strong anti-immigration message, is a long way from winning over a majority of French voters. Instead, his candidacy could mobilize large numbers of left-leaning voters to support the Gaullist Chirac.

Even before the final votes were tallied, leading Socialists were saying they would urge their supporters to do just that, to ensure Le Pen's defeat and preserve "the honor of France." One survey of voters found that Chirac would beat Le Pen in the second round with 78 percent to 22 percent.

But at his headquarters in Paris on Sunday night, Chirac seemed cautious. He addressed the nation in a somber mood, urging voters to rally behind democratic values, without directly mentioning Le Pen.

"The moment of choice has come," Chirac said. "What is at stake are the values of the republic, to which all French people are attached. I call on all French citizens to rally to defend human rights, to guarantee the cohesion of the nation, to affirm the unity of the republic, and to restore the authority of state."

For his part, a clearly energized Le Pen stressed his anti-European Union message.

"Don't be afraid to dream, you little people, the foot soldiers, the excluded, you the miners, the steelworkers, the workers of all those industries ruined by the Euro-globalization of Maastricht," he said, referring to one of the founding treaties of the European Union signed at Maastricht. "I call on the French of all races, religions and social conditions to rally round this historic chance for a national recovery."

Le Pen's defeat of Jospin was the latest in a series of blows to the European left that began in Italy last year, spread to Denmark and Portugal, and could engulf the Netherlands and Germany next.

Reaction to the latest news was mixed, even among some right-wing parties.

Filip Dewinter, the leader of the far-right party Vlaams Blok that took a third of the vote in Belgium's second city, Antwerp, in 2000, hailed Le Pen's success as part of a trend. "I'm very, very pleased that Le Pen scored such a large victory," Dewinter told Reuters. "We are brothers in arms."

Political leaders on the left expressed dismay.

The British Labor leader in the European Parliament said Le Pen's victory, coming after other successes for far-right parties across a continent anxious about economic malaise and ethnic migration, would "send a shudder across the European Union."

The Social Democratic prime minister of Sweden, Goran Persson, agreed, saying, "I hope that all democratic powers will unite against right-wing extremism and xenophobia."

The outcome of the vote was a crushing personal defeat for Jospin, who had built a long career on an image of hard work and honesty at a time when French politicians from left and right, including Chirac, had been tarred by allegations of corruption. But Jospin had failed to overcome what many saw as his greatest flaw: a professorial style that often seemed condescending and humorless.

In recent weeks, he has been criticized for running a stiff, lackluster campaign. He made several gaffes, including once calling Chirac "tired, past it and overcome by the wear and tear of power," for which he later had to apologize.

About 11 p.m. Sunday, with about half the votes counted, a shaken-looking Jospin went on television to announce that if early results showing Le Pen ahead held up, he would retire from political life.

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