The stunning performance of extreme rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen in th
PARIS (AP) _ The stunning performance of extreme rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen in the presidential election’s first round indicates a major split among French conservatives that could put them in the minority for years.
The National Front leader surpassed all predictions Sunday, winning 14.4 percent of the vote. He nearly matched the 16.5 percent gained by former center-right Premier Raymond Barre and was not far behind conservative Premier Jacques Chirac, who had 19.5 percent.
Sunday’s winner, with 34.1 percent of the vote, was President Francois Mitterrand, a 71-year-old Socialist who built a moderate image in the waning years of his first seven-year term. Chirac, 55, will face him in a runoff May 8, and attracting Le Pen’s supporters appears to be the premier’s only chance.
″The right, which is in the majority today in France, risks being in the minority in two weeks,″ said Pascal Perinot of the Center for French Political Studies. ″Chirac is caught between two blocs demanding different things.″
Chirac’s conservative Rally for the Republic party is allied with the center-right Union for French Democracy, which backed Barre in the first round, but the alliance is not always an easy one.
Some of Barre’s centrist backers are expected to cross over to Mitterrand, and that seepage could become a flood if Chirac makes overtures to Le Pen, 59, who has emerged as a major force after 20 years on the margin of French politics.
His goals, repeated often and eloquently, are to rid France of Third World immigrants, save jobs and welfare benefits for the French and crack down on crime, which he also blames on immigrants.
Chirac has pledged not to make a deal with Le Pen for support, leaving him with the problem of how to lure National Front voters without their leader.
Whatever Chirac does, the traditional conservative parties risk the same political trap in which the left was caught during much of the past three decades.
For years the Socialists had the Communist Party, representing 20 percent to 25 percent of the vote in the 1960s and 1970s, looming over their shoulders and frightening moderate voters. Only with the decline of the Communists in the 1980s did the Socialists come to the fore.
That same phenomenon could be facing the right.
″For a quarter of a century, the left was kept out of power because of the power of the Communist Party,″ political analyist Alain Duhamel wrote in a commentary. ″If the present parliamentary majority doesn’t watch out, the existence of an influenctial National Front could constitute a similar handicap.″
Simone Veil, a leading centrist politican and former president of the European Parliament, said: ″If Jacques Chirac’s language borrows the themes of the National Front, he will lose much more from the center than he will gain from Jean-Marie Le Pen’s voters.″
She said her vote would be one of those lost to Chirac in such a case.
Pierre Mehaignerie, another centrist leader, said: ″Jacques Chirac has two weeks to answer and give these (centrist) voters the assurances they are seeking.″
Mitterrand, who was visiting the French Antilles, was quick to grasp the National Front stick and thrash Chirac with it.
″I would not like to see the formation of an anomalous coaltion,″ the incumbent declared.
″I hope that no responsible candidate will allow himself to go so far as to discuss with, deal with or foresee a future government with a political movement which, with regard to racism, shows so much indulgence. It is on this kind of political act that one will judge real intentions and that one will judge on May 8.″
Perinot said the traditional right ″will no longer be credible among voters″ unless it ends internal quarrels and finds a way to weaken the National Front
″Chirac must pick up a part of this electorate, but he will not get it all because in this election there was a large amount of protest, of hostility toward the political class,″ Perinot said. ″The extreme right vote was an anti-political demonstration.″
National Front voters tend to be young and male, largely from the class of shopkeepers, artisans and small businessmen. A similar movement led by Pierre Poujade succeeded in electing 53 deputies to the National Assembly in 1956, among them Le Pen, but faded in the next election.
Although the National Front appeals to many of the same voters, it also attracts the working class, which makes up about 20 percent of its support.
″In the 1950s and 1960s, the French never gave a durable vote to the extreme right because of the Vichy experience,″ said Perinot, referring to the wartime government that collaborated with the Nazis. ″Now, most of the young have forgotten history and the extreme right has emerged.″
EDITOR’S NOTE - Jeffrey Ulbrich, based in Paris for The Associated Press, has been writing about French politics since 1978.