Why Le Pen Polled So Well

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I should have seen it coming. a few weeks ago, i asked a French friend why Lionel Jospin, the Socialist candidate for the presidency, had such difficulty connecting with the voters. "They just don't like him," my friend shrugged, as the French do. Worthy and whiny, and with that pursed-lips seriousness that the French think characteristic of Protestants like him, Jospin proved incapable of inspiring his natural constituency.

But even given Jospin's weakness as a candidate, it was still a shock when he got fewer votes in the first round of the election than Jean-Marie Le Pen, the candidate of the far-right National Front. Le Pen will now meet President Jacques Chirac — a mainstream conservative — in a runoff on May 5. The National Front's success, wrote the editor of Le Monde last week, has "wounded" and "humiliated" France. Le Pen won't become President; Chirac is all but guaranteed to win the runoff in a landslide, as many supporters of the left, holding their noses, rally to his standard. But the success of the far right, with its nationalist, protectionist and anti-immigrant platform, poses some uncomfortable questions. What explains Le Pen's support?

To an extent, he benefited from France's electoral laws, which allow multiple candidates in the first round. Jospin received just over 16% of the vote, compared with nearly 17% for Le Pen and 20% for Chirac. Other candidates of the left, together with the Greens, gathered nearly 27%. Just as some Democrats blamed Ralph Nader for Al Gore's failure in 2000, so Jospin's supporters can blame the comrades who siphoned votes away from him. Still, the question remains: Why did so many voters desert the mainstream candidates? How about: because they are bored stiff with them. Chirac first served as Prime Minister in — this is not a misprint — 1974. Jospin has been a leading light in the Socialist Party since 1973. Imagine being asked to choose, this year, between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford: you'd look elsewhere too.

Moreover, the nature of French politics has changed. In the 1970s and early 1980s, says Philip Gordon of the Brookings Institution, French elections "used to mean something." They presented a choice between those who believed in capitalism and those who wanted to end it. But in the past decade the differences between political parties have become attenuated, with left and right squashed together in a moderate, neoliberal middle. Western Europe in general has become "postpolitical."

Rather than argue about politics, modern Europeans spend their time wondering who'll win the soccer Champions League and worrying whether to spend the long summer vacation in Phuket or Goa. Voter apathy is widespread; last year's British elections had the lowest turnout since 1918. In France the 72% turnout last week was the lowest since the modern constitution was adopted in 1958. It's often the more moderate voters who stay home, which means that candidates and parties once considered extreme do better than expected.

But none of these explanations quite capture the nature of Le Pen's success. He is not a new face (he first ran for the presidency in 1974), and the nature of his politics is well known. Le Pen is a racist, equal-opportunity bigot, as happy to offend Jews as Arabs. Why did the citizens of the country that likes to think of itself as the most civilized nation on earth give him more support than ever?

The answer, I think, is that France is a fractured society. For many of its Úlite — the people who work for Vivendi and Airbus, have Harvard M.B.A.s and speak perfect English — globalization and a free-market economy offer glittering opportunities. But for others — and this is true elsewhere in Europe — the modern world is a threat. "Europe," says Bernard Guetta, a columnist at L'Express, "is frightened of the new century." Some French see national identity challenged by immigration and the rise of Islam; they witness governmental powers ineluctably shifting from Paris to the European Union. They fear that an American-style, unfettered free-market economy has nibbled away at social cohesion. And so they have thrown their support to Le Pen, a man who promises to turn back the clock, to rebuild a world where to live in France means that you speak, eat and buy French.

France is not turning fascist, but last week's vote was revealing nonetheless. In modern Europe, the nations that have embraced globalization and the market have been those like Britain and the Netherlands — places with a trading, maritime tradition, whose people have long wandered the world looking for opportunities. There's a part of the French character that is similarly adventurous, and of late I had become convinced that France had joined the globalization club. Now I'm not so sure.