Strong right-wing finish may signal French shift from political consensus to ideological splits. THE POINT OF LE PEN

Socialist Fran,cois Mitterrand first, conservative Jacques Chirac second - that much was expected in Sunday's first round of French presidential voting. But extreme right Jean-Marie Le Pen winning almost 15 percent - that was not expected.

Shocked pundits spent most of yesterday analyzing Mr. Le Pen's surprising showing. Their fear: Le Pen's strength, based on attacks against foreigners, could signal a rejection of an emerging open-minded pro-European consensus and a return to a more ideologically split France.

``We had been saying for a long time that the French were becoming pragmatic,'' commented Albert DuRoy, a respected political analyst, on television. ``But no, there is 15 percent of the French who vote for someone who offers the most simple of imaginable answers.''

A heterogeneous mix accounts for this 15 percent, analysts say. Many are working-class voters who used to register protest by supporting the Communist Party. The Communists suffered a historic defeat on Sunday, tumbling to a mere 7 percent, their lowest-ever postwar score.

Others come from the ranks of France's 2 million plus unemployed. Others are drawn from the middle-class out of fear of losing their jobs and their identity to Arab newcomers.

``The frustrated turned to Le Pen,'' explained Jean-Luc Parodi, a professor at Paris's Institute of Political Science. ``We've had the left, the right, and the center in power and there's been no miracle answer. Le Pen was the only untried candidate.''

Le Pen will play a decisive role in the upcoming May 8 runoff. In a television announcement, he said he would wait until May 1 before deciding which candidate to support.

``We have the certainty of a political earthquake,'' a jubilant Le Pen said. ``Nothing will ever be done in France without the voters of the National Front.''

Chirac advisers repeated on Monday their candidate's stated opposition against any type of electoral alliance with the extreme right. But this does not mean that the Prime Minister will not try to appeal to National Front supporters by using some of his themes. Commenting on the results, Chirac announced a platform emphasizing ``security'' and a crackdown on ``illegal immigration.''

``It doesn't shock me that French are worried about immigration,'' added Jacques Myard, a Chirac adviser. ``Rich, underpopulated Europe faces a potential invasion from poor overpopulated North Africa.''

In brandishing these themes, Chirac must be careful. Already before Sunday's first round, he talked tough in an effort to attract potential Le Pen voters - only to score a poor 19.9 percent.

Instead of weakening Le Pen, the prime minister's anti-immigrant stance threatens to alienate moderate conservatives. These voters supported centrist candidate Raymond Barre, who won 16.5 percent in the first round. Mr. Barre endorsed Chirac after the results were announced, while issuing a warning.

``I count on him to defend the objectives to which we are particularly attached: an open, tolerant society which refuses xenophobia, racism, and all extremisms.''

Caught between rival wings of conservatives, Chirac looks like a loser. Exit polls show him as much as 10 points behind Mr. Mitterrand, who picks up much support from disillusioned conservatives scared by Le Pen. The President calms these voters by presenting himself as the natural representative of all moderate Frenchmen who reject Le Pen.

``The choice is now simple,'' Mitterrand said, appealing ``to those of you who did not vote for me in this first round and who share the same values.''

But despite his lead, the President likely is displeased.

Mitterrand's goal, often repeated, is to create an American style political landscape, with a moderate right and a moderate left alternating power. Instead, France finds itself dealing with Le Pen's divisive rhetoric.

``Once again, France is a democracy shamefully ``exceptional,'' writes Serge July, editor of the left-leaning daily Liberation. ``It is the only country in the Western world where economic and political difficulties have resulted in the emergence of a xenophobic and intolerant electorate.''

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