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French Far-Rightist Sees 'End of Cycle'

Politics: Though expected to lose in the face-off against Chirac next month, Jean-Marie Le Pen comes out swinging.

April 23, 2002|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — A veteran brawler savoring what is his biggest and perhaps last success, presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen declared Monday that his electoral upset shows that he is the candidate of "little people" challenging a discredited political system.

On the day after his surprise second-place finish in the first-round vote landed him a spot in next month's runoff against incumbent Jacques Chirac, Le Pen met reporters to survey the political wreckage in his wake.

Le Pen, 73, and his far-right National Front bested Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and 13 other candidates Sunday, causing the demoralized Socialist leader to announce that he was resigning. As a dazed nation had a conversation with itself about the implications of the election, Le Pen said the performance of his National Front heralds fundamental change.

"We are witnessing the end of a cycle in which a decadent, corrupt and sclerotic political system is sinking," Le Pen told reporters who packed his campaign headquarters. "France has experienced a national rupture between the official nation, represented by a discredited pseudo-elite embodied by Chirac, and the real nation, the French people who are retaking their destiny in hand--a destiny to which they want to be led by a free, honest and patriotic man."

The center-right Chirac is expected to beat Le Pen by a commanding margin May 5. But Le Pen, conceding nothing, had the time of his life at the news conference. The often overt hostility of some journalists only widened his smile and sharpened the sarcasm honed during four decades in the campaign trenches. Le Pen's supporters wore T-shirts depicting him as Zorro.

When an Italian journalist asked about fears that Le Pen is a danger to democracy, the candidate sneered: "Italy? Oh, you have a remarkable example of civil peace there with the Red Brigades, the [scandals], political corruption. You are really going to give me a lesson."

When asked if he would continue trying to soften his image, Le Pen beamed, struck a pose behind the microphone and chortled: "You find that my image has been softened? Oh, I thank you very much; what a gift you have given me. . . . Do you feel caressed?"

It was vintage Le Pen: nimble, clownish, gleefully ferocious. Meanwhile, thousands of protesters staged marches around the nation condemning him. Critics see Le Pen as neo-fascist and racist because of his anti-immigrant, anti-Europe nationalism and history of crude comments.

Barbara Frugier, 27, joined hundreds of marchers in an anti-Le Pen protest in the Place de la Republique late Monday. Frugier, who works in an advertising agency, said she felt partly responsible for Le Pen's showing because she had neglected to vote, contributing to the near-record-low turnout.

"I'm here to show my support for democracy," she said. "I don't think that [Le Pen's victory] really reflects French reality, but more boredom. The campaign was insipid and colorless."

It's not colorless anymore. Political commentators tended to share the protesters' distaste for the National Front candidate. But they largely agreed with Le Pen's diagnosis: An abyss separates disgruntled voters from an aloof political elite obsessed with theory and ideology.

The blow to the professorial Jospin and his Socialists was especially embarrassing because they have been shrilly critical of far-right leaders elsewhere in Europe.

"There is a crisis of representation in France," said Pierre Giacometti of the Ipsos polling firm. "There is a gulf between the habits, practices, lifestyle, thought processes and governing style of the elites and reality as it is perceived by the public."

Although Chirac topped the candidates with 19.6% of the vote, the showing of his and other mainstream parties, including the Socialists, was notably poor. In contrast, extremists of left and right racked up unprecedented numbers: Old-fashioned Trotskyites and other marginal leftists accounted for more than 15% of the vote.

With 17%, Le Pen added only about 2 percentage points to the National Front's showing in the 1995 elections. He also benefited from absenteeism and divisions on the left.

Le Pen exploited genuine concerns and deep fears, experts said. Calling himself an "economic rightist and a social leftist," Le Pen stepped into terrain abandoned by out-of-touch leftists.

"If you think about it, he has become the top candidate of the left," said a French official who analyzed the election for the government. "The workers voted for him. The old Communist Party electorate went to him. Why? Because he was the one who talked the most about their conditions of life."

Le Pen fared best among factory workers, small-business owners, farmers and other working people in southern and eastern France, areas of high crime and industrial decline. He painted the same ominous picture he has for the last 20 years, saying predominantly Muslim immigrants from North Africa are the root of unemployment, lawlessness and social and cultural breakdown.

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