Le Pen, Le Déluge?

EUROPEANS awoke on Monday with political alarms ringing. France's far-right leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, had placed second in France's first-round vote for president and had forced the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, out of the running.

It was as if Pat Buchanan had beat Al Gore in a preliminary three-man race, and was now in a face-off with George W. Bush.

Not only was it France's biggest electoral upset of the post-war period, but Mr. Le Pen's surge – he took almost one-fifth of the vote and nine of France's 22 electoral regions – is now regarded as a sign of a continental drift toward some sort of European neo-fascism (see story, page 7).

His anti-immigrant views and distorted reading of the Holocaust find echoes in a few other European countries, from Denmark to Italy. And the recent anti-Jewish attacks in Europe coming after Israel's invasion of the West Bank only reinforced the idea that Le Pen must be stopped before more Europeans vote for his kind.

Even the winner of the first round, the current president and leader of the moderate right, Jacques Chirac, warned of disaster if extreme rightist Le Pen should win the final vote or if his party, the extremist National Front, scores big in June parliamentary contests.

Le Pen has little chance, however, to win the two-man race for president in May. Many of his views are just too repugnant. Even the Socialists will now vote for Mr. Chirac.

And French voters will likely do as they have in the past and vote for the left in the parliamentary races, while leaving the conservative Chirac in the Elysée palace, thus reflecting France's normal left-right split.

Le Pen isn't so much a threat as a signal to France's elite that they have ignored the complaints of grass-roots citizens about crime and jobs. Le Pen has found fertile ground for his milder views at the local level. And the unprecedented low voter turnout in the election was as much a sign of political alienation as was the fact that 20 percent of French voters chose the extreme right.

Unlike Britain and Germany, where the left has moved to the middle over the past decade, France's leftist leaders remain stuck in 20th-century ideology even as globalization of the economy pushes more voters to the right, either to embrace conservative economics or in resentment at globalization's impact on their lives.

Le Pen deserves rejection at the polls, but European leaders who decry him need to look deeper at why voters must resort to extreme messages at the ballot box.

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