DEEP discontent with the status quo was the message of voters in first-round balloting for the French presidency April 23. They seemed eager to back just about anyone except Jacques Chirac, who had been leading in the polls.
Mr. Chirac, from the center-right Rally for the Republic party, did well enough to finish second, with 20.8 percent of the votes. That will allow him to face Socialist Lionel Jospin in a runoff. Mr. Jospin, a former education minister and economics professor, surprised pollsters by leading all candidates with 23.3 percent.
The poorer-than-expected showing by Chirac, the mayor of Paris, exposed the fracturing of French politics toward the extremes, especially to the right. Two far-right candidates, Jean-Marie Le Pen and Philippe de Villiers, garnered 1 out of every 5 votes, the strongest showing by the radical right since World War II. Mr. Le Pen's call for deportation of 3 million immigrants in the guise of opening up jobs for citizens -- with its xenophobic and racist overtones -- struck a disturbingly responsive chord with voters. With about 60 percent of voters showing they preferred conservative-leaning candidates in the first round, Chirac seems almost certain to win the final two-man race May 7. He is the logical heir of the Le Pen votes. Le Pen seems eager to wield his increased political power to win concessions from either Chirac or Jospin.
For his part, political newcomer Jospin must hold the votes on the left and hope that Chirac stumbles. Jospin might be able to tap some of the Le Pen vote if he can appear to be the candidate of real change.
With unemployment at 12.3 percent, the candidate who can convince voters that he has the best plan to generate jobs will have a huge advantage. Jospin would attack the problem in moderate-leftist fashion, using a higher minimum wage, a shorter work week of 37 hours, and job-creating public works programs. Chirac would provide incentives to private companies to hire the jobless.
The two finalists debate May 2. It will be an important opportunity for both to publicly reject Le Pen's positions and approach. But the candidates must also probe the fear and discontent that lies behind the large far-right vote. Then they can seek to address it within the context of France's democratic tradition of tolerance for the rights of minorities.