Losing candidates in French presidential election rush to endorse Chirac over Le Pen

Monday, April 22nd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PARIS (AP) _ Defeated French presidential hopefuls on both left and right on Monday rushed to endorse incumbent Jacques Chirac for the second-round vote _ a concerted effort to keep power out of the hands of extreme right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Chirac, a conservative, and the anti-immigrant Le Pen will face each other in the runoff vote May 5. Le Pen's second-place finish in Sunday's first round dealt a crushing blow to Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who came in third.

The voting shook the political establishment and sent protesters into the streets. Choking back emotion, Jospin announced his retirement from politics, calling Le Pen's success a ``thunderbolt'' and a ``very disturbing sign for France and for our democracy.''

Le Pen, 73, leader of the anti-immigration National Front, called his score a step in ``the French renaissance,'' to be completed with a May 5 victory.

But on Monday, a few defeated candidates asked backers to transfer their support to Chirac _ a request that, for some, would once have been unimaginable.

``We're facing a choice that could be considered impossible,'' Green Party candidate Noel Mamere told supporters. ``To block the extreme right, we must resolve to vote Chirac in the second round.''

``We have a responsibility to society, I'm ready to admit that clearly to you,'' Mamere said.

Jean-Pierre Chevenement, a former Socialist known for supporting traditional values, was another candidate who urged that ``France should not be abandoned'' to Le Pen's party.

Spontaneous demonstrations broke out in cities across France after Sunday's surprise. About 10,000 people protested in Paris alone, with some waving signs that read ``I'm ashamed to be French.'' Police lobbed tear gas to break up several smaller protests.

Shock was reflected in French newspapers Monday, with the leftist Liberation newspaper's front page showing a photo of Le Pen with an enormous one-word headline: ``No.'' Conservative Le Figaro's headline read, ``The earthquake.'' Le Parisien's headline was: ``The Shock.''

European newspapers put out similar front page headlines. Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet called the election ``an insult to democracy,'' while a headline in Rome daily La Repubblica read, ``France, Earthquake Le Pen.''

Jospin did not endorse Chirac. However, many political heavyweights close to him, including his former finance minister, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, voiced support for the incumbent conservative.

``Jean-Marie Le Pen represents everything I hate, and so I have no hesitation in saying: I will vote for Jacques Chirac,'' Strauss-Kahn told France-Inter radio.

The silver-haired Le Pen, a former paratrooper now in his fourth presidential race, has been a fixture in French politics for decades. But few could imagine he would reach the final round in the contest for the country's top office.

He was to hold a news conference later Monday, but earlier made a broad appeal to the French, ``whatever their race, their religion or their social condition, to rally to this historic chance for national recovery.''

Scores of polls leading up to the vote consistently showed the conservative Chirac, 69, and the Socialist Jospin, 64, taking the top two slots. Only recently did Le Pen even solidly emerge as the so-called third man, the kingmaker.

With more than 99 percent of the vote counted, Chirac had 19.65 percent, Le Pen 17.06 percent and Jospin 16.05 percent, according to the Interior Ministry.

The three men were among a record field of 16 candidates. The abstention rate of some 28 percent also was a record, Interior Minister Daniel Vaillant said. Both were likely contributing factors to Le Pen's success.

Voter apathy and the fragmented field punished Jospin and rewarded Le Pen, boosting him beyond the 15 percent that he and his party traditionally score in national elections.

Rising crime and the central role it took in the campaign appeared to be another factor in Le Pen's success. Vaillant denounced what he called fear tactics over crime that played into the hands of Le Pen, whose party blames urban violence on immigrants.

Le Pen has long been accused of racism and anti-Semitism. He is notorious for having called Nazi gas chambers ``a detail'' of history in 1987 _ a remark for which he was fined in court, one of several convictions. Le Pen denies he is anti-Semitic.

Le Pen, who founded the National Front in 1972 and uses ``French first'' as his slogan, has struck a chord among voters who fear that the French identity is being sacrificed to immigration, particularly Muslims from Africa. He refers to himself as a simple patriot.

Champagne bottles stayed corked at Chirac's campaign headquarters as a somber president called for national unity.

``I call on all French men and women to gather to defend human rights,'' Chirac said in a brief speech.

``France needs you, and I need you.''

Several polls conducted as results came in showed that Chirac would win by a wide margin on May 5.

Le Pen had only narrowly qualified for the presidential race, scrambling for the 500 endorsements from elected officials needed to run. His party all but imploded in 1998 when top lieutenant Bruno Megret left in a nasty public quarrel and formed his own movement.

Megret, too, was a presidential candidate Sunday, getting nearly 2.4 percent of the vote. Together with Le Pen, that meant that the extreme right garnered almost as many votes as Chirac.