A French bullhorn

April 24, 2002

FOR THE NEXT two weeks, France, and the world, will witness the spectacle of an extreme nationalist right-winger as one of two candidates for president. Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose National Front party is built on poisonous resentments, shocked the nation by coming in second in Sunday's first round of balloting, edging out the Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin.

Mr. Le Pen stands virtually no chance of winning in his face-off with Jacques Chirac, the incumbent, on May 5. But simply by getting to the second round, and muscling the left out of the race entirely, he has set off alarm bells throughout European politics.

Over the past 30 years Mr. Le Pen has given plenty of ammunition to those who accuse him of being a fascist, an anti-Semite, and an enemy of immigrants generally. He once dismissed the Nazi extermination camps as a "detail in history." Now he is at center stage.

Not all of this is his own doing. Mr. Jospin was an uninspiring candidate who couldn't rally the left. A record number of voters, dismayed by corruption and a paucity of ideas within the leading parties, stayed home.

Mr. Le Pen received just 17 percent of the vote - but that's more than he's gotten in years of trying. He tapped into an anger that's evident not only in France but throughout Europe. It's an anger directed against immigrants, criminals and bureaucracy. Some of it is a natural resentment among those who feel left out in an elite-ridden system. And some has to do with ethnic insecurity, particularly in a country with large African and Jewish communities. Among the French there are those who see French Muslims assaulting French Jews and who come away hating both.

Mr. Le Pen appealed, as he put it, to "the excluded, you the miners, the steelworkers, the workers of all those industries ruined by ... Euroglobalization ... you the farmers forced into ruin, you the first victims of crime in the suburbs and cities."

A large number of voters responded to that appeal. Their unhappiness cannot be ignored. Much of Europe, in fact, is witnessing a conservative tide, one that feeds on resentment and that has already brought rightist governments to power in Austria, Italy, Spain and Denmark. It is marked by a growing dismay with the European Union, and that may not be entirely unhealthy.

But a political system that provides no outlet for such grievances other than through a man like Mr. Le Pen is unhealthy. Aroused at last, his opponents are rallying. Thousands have taken to the streets in protest. Let us hope that this is his last hurrah.

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