FRENCH voters handed mainstream politicians -- and the pollsters who track them -- a sharp rebuff in the first round of voting for presidential elections Sunday.
Two-thirds of eligible voters showed little interest in either the socialist or conservative mainstream candidates -- either by choosing candidates on the left- or right-wing fringe or by not voting, a practice that regularly cuts out nearly 30 percent of eligible voters.
The shock for the political analysts was the strong showing of Socialist Lionel Jospin. Though few even in his own party initially gave him a shot of making it through to the second round, he came out on top with 23.3 percent of the vote.
The two main conservative candidates, who both belong to the Rally for the Republic party, had once both enjoyed heavy leads in public-opinion polls. But this weekend they wound up in a close battle for second place: Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac won 20.8 percent of the vote, edging out Prime Minister Edouard Balladur.
As they prepare for a May 7 runoff vote, the key issue for both Mr. Jospin and Mr. Chirac will be how to court the protest vote. More than 37 percent voted for candidates who lambasted the political strategies and records of mainstream candidates, up nearly 10 percent from the last presidential polls in 1988.
Most notably, National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen scored 15 percent of the vote, while right-wing candidate Philippe de Villiers, whose political program was similar to that of Mr. Le Pen, won 4.7 percent. Combined, that makes nearly the highest score for the far-right in Europe since the end of World War II. On the left, Communist, Trotskyite, and environmental candidates won a total of 17.2 percent.
In the next 15 days, both Jospin and Chirac will have to struggle to get a majority to win in the final round of voting May 7. Jospin is expected to pick up votes to his left, but the French electorate has shifted right during Socialist President Francois Mitterrand's 14 years in office and now claims the support of only about 40 percent of the voters. The first polls for the final round of voting peg Chirac to win with 57 percent of the vote, with 43 percent for the Socialist.
But the most critical shift in the campaign will be how Chirac responds to the strong showing on his right. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, a strong Chirac supporter and likely prime minister in a Chirac presidency, denounced Le Pen to his face on national television Sunday evening.
When asked what he expected from Le Pen in the second round of voting, Mr. Juppe said, ''I expect nothing from him. I do not share his values.''
But Juppe softened his tone yesterday morning. Le Pen voters, he said, ''have legitimate concerns, such as security and preservation of a certain form of national identity that all candidates must take seriously, especially Mr. Chirac.''
''Chirac cannot win if even a half of Le Pen's voters don't support him,'' says Denis Lacorne of the Center of Studies and International Research in Paris. ''You can expect that themes like security and the danger of immigrants will reappear.''
Concern for attracting far-right voters could also help ensure a place in Chirac's presidential team for Interior Minister Charles Pasqua, the architect of a recent conservative crackdown on immigrants. Mr. Pasqua shifted his support to Mr. Balladur early in the campaign, and before Sunday's vote he was expected to be marginalized in a Chirac administration.
''If [Chirac's camp] expects nothing from us, that's what they'll get,'' said Front spokesman Bruno Gollnish. ''It's up to those two candidates to come up with programs to appeal to us.''
Addressing an audience of some 10,000 supporters at the edge of Paris last week, National Front leaders made their own priorities very clear.
''Never have the French public been so willing to accept our ideas,'' said Bruno Megret, who spoke just before Le Pen. ''Chirac wants to give France to anyone in the world who wants it, but we say, 'France and the French first!' ''
Le Pen later stood up and said, ''The programs of the left and right are identical, and if we follow them, the country will continue its long descent into hell.'' His popularity will be tested in municipal elections this June, when his party is expected to win seats on city councils in some of France's major cities.
National Front programs call for organized departure of 3 to 4 million (legal) immigrants to open up jobs for unemployed French, a rejection of the European Union, reestablishment of national-border controls given up under an EU agreement this spring, and efforts to boost the birthrate among white French women.