France Can't Write off Politics of le Pen.(PAGE ONE)

Article excerpt

Byline: David R. Sands and Andrew Borowiec, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Le Pen proved mightier than the swords of virtually every mainstream French political figure in an electoral surprise that could reshape France, scramble alliances across the continent and alter the tone of Europe's relations with the United States.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, a one-time paratrooper long considered a fringe figure of French nationalism, emerged from Sunday's first round of voting as one of two men still standing with a chance to become president of France in the May 5 runoff.

Among those he bested were a clutch of 10 leftists and far-left contenders in the 16-candidate field, including Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.

The political fallout came swiftly yesterday as Mr. Jospin announced he would retire from politics and even leading left-wing politicians rushed to endorse conservative President Jacques Chirac against Mr. Le Pen.

"It is the honor of our country that is at stake," said Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former finance minister and spokesman for Mr. Jospin, explaining why he would support Mr. Chirac.

Followers of Mr. Le Pen's National Front took to the streets in celebration yesterday, while there were scattered protests around the country against the party's showing.

Few give Mr. Le Pen any chance against Mr. Chirac in the next round of voting, but his unexpectedly strong showing has already left France's leading politicians struggling to make sense of what happened.

"This was in reality a defeat for the totality of the French political establishment," said Simon Serfaty, director of the European Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"Le Pen had no business getting 17 percent of the vote and shouldn't have been able to run a better campaign than any of his major opponents, but that's exactly what happened," Mr. Serfaty said.

John Hulsman, a specialist on European affairs at the Heritage Foundation, agreed: "This vote says a whole lot more about the bankruptcy of the Fifth Republic than it says about Le Pen.

"The French are no more racist or nationalist than they were on Saturday, but when you have two mainstream leaders without a single new thing to say about the country's problems, this is what can happen."

That view was reinforced by an analysis of Sunday's vote. Mr. Le Pen's share of the vote was only two percentage points higher than his total in the previous first-round presidential ballot in 1995.

The difference this time was the stunning fall in support for the major candidates, a crowded field that drained support for Mr. Jospin in particular, and an abstention rate - nearly 30 percent - that French commentators said reflected deep voter apathy.

In exultant press interviews and rallies yesterday, Mr. Le Pen said his breakthrough came because his issues - law and order, deep distrust of the European Union, controls on immigration - had hit home.

"This is first of all a rejection by the French people of the ineffective way they've been governed," he told reporters, crediting his strong showing to the "miners, the steelworkers, and the laborers at all those industries that have been ruined by euro-globalization. …