Why France Lurched to the Right

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Far-right National Front presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen

Here's why far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen will advance to the second round of the French presidential election: An unusually high number of voters stayed home, and a lot of dissention among the voters of the left. Nearly 30 percent of the electorate stayed away from Sunday's poll, and their abstention is believed to have hurt Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin more than any of his rivals. A large stay-away also means that the results were skewed to the more ideologically motivated voters, who tend to favor more extreme parties.

The fact that the presidential race was contested by 16 candidates showed a certain dynamism at the grassroots of French democracy, but everyone appeared to be acting on the assumption that the second round, contested by the top two candidates, would be a face-off between Jospin and President Jacques Chirac. For some, that was reason enough to stay home in the first round; for others it was an opportunity to send a message to their parties in the way that primary voters do in U.S. elections. At least half of the candidates were to the left of Jospin and the Socialists, and although Jospin only got 16 percent of the vote (compared with 17 percent for Le Pen and 20 percent for Chirac), the combined vote for Jospin and those to the left of him was around 42 percent. The combined vote for Chirac and those to his right was a slightly lower figure. Right now there are a lot of leftwing voters out there kicking themselves for having voted for a Trotskyist candidate rather than for Jospin.

Explanations and excuses aside, there are some very disturbing facts here. More people voted for the extreme rightwing candidates Le Pen and Bruno Megret (who broke away from Le Pen's national front after a personality clash with the leader) than for the sitting president. That can't simply be written off as a protest vote. There's an extreme-right, xenophobic, anti-immigrant sentiment that is no longer shy of expressing itself in mainstream French politics.

That will likely prompt a huge mobilization of centrist opinion of the left and right to negate that extremist sentiment by giving Chirac a huge margin of victory in the second round. But that won't reverse the fact that France has dispensed with a taboo here: They've got a neo-fascist into the second round of a presidential campaign, because enough French people are buying his message of law and order through curbing immigration.

The Socialists already control the parliament, and the French have become comfortable with "cohabitation" (where the presidency is held by one party and the legislature and government by its opposition). But the Socialists are going to need to forge some agreement with parties to the left of themselves, such as the Communists and the Greens. And to do that, they're going to have to pick a candidate with more appeal to the independent left voters than Jospin had — which always raises the danger of alienating more moderate voters.

President Chirac's Gaullists, of course, are feeling as if they're now in the driver's seat, and they'll be hoping to end "cohabitation" by riding Chirac's coat tails to a victory in the June parliamentary elections. It's too early to tell which way the crisis will break, but what is abundantly clear now is that France is no longer quite the standard-bearer of the European left that it has been for years.