Background: French Elections
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KWAME HOLMAN: The second place showing of far right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen in yesterday’s elections has rocked France. Clashes erupted early today in Paris between police and anti-Le Pen demonstrators. There were street demonstrations in several French cities to protest Le Pen’s unexpected success at the polls.
As head of the National Front Party, the 73-year-old Le Pen has blamed immigrants, especially those from North Africa, for France’s rising crime and unemployment rates. A perennial candidate, this was Le Pen’s fourth bid for the presidency. His message over the years has been consistent.
JEAN-MARIE LE PEN, National Front Party, France (Translated): I think the phenomenon of immigration threatens the balance of our society and even its existence.
KWAME HOLMAN: In the past, Le Pen has made overtly racist and anti-Semitic remarks. He once called the holocaust a detail in history. Last night Le Pen attributed his victory to the French people’s deep concern over crime and government corruption.
JEAN-MARIE LE PEN (Translated): Don’t be afraid to dream, you the small ones, the excluded ones. Don’t let people trap you in the older visions of the left-wing and the right ring wing: You who are born the last 20 years, all the mistakes and embezzle of the politicians; you the farmers with miserable pensions facing bankruptcy and your own disappearance. You who are also the first victims of insecurity in the suburbs, towns and villages. – I call for the French people, no matter their race, religion or their social conditions, to rally for this historical chance of national recovery.
KWAME HOLMAN: Incumbent President Jacques Chirac garnered the most votes yesterday. Elected President in 1995, Chirac has campaigned under a cloud of corruption charges stemming from his 18 years as mayor of Paris. Last night, Chirac urged French citizens to reject Le Pen in their upcoming face-off.
PRESIDENT JACQUES CHIRAC, Rally for the Republic Party, France (Translated): I call all the French people to unite to defend human rights and guarantee the national cohesion to assert the unity of the republic and restore the authority of the state. Tonight, my dear compatriots, France needs you. I need you. I wish in the coming days everyone will show responsibility, tolerance and respect. Long live the republic, long live France.
KWAME HOLMAN: Until yesterday, socialist Prime Minister Leonelle Jospin was expected to be Chirac’s competitor in the election but instead, Jospin last night found himself giving a concession speech and announcing his political retirement.
PRIME MINISTER LIONEL JOSPIN, Socialist Party, France (Translated): I take full responsibility for this failure, and I have decided to withdraw myself from the political scene after the end of the presidential election. Until then, I will naturally continue to be the head of the government. I express my regrets and my thanks to all who have voted for me, and I salute the French people for whom I have served my best during these five years.
KWAME HOLMAN: With the vote count all but complete, Chirac has 19.7%, the lowest margin for a major party political candidate since 1958. Le Pen took 17%; Jospin 16%. There were an unprecedented 16 candidates on the ballot yesterday and a record 28% of the electorate stayed home. The runoff election, where voters will choose between Le Pen and Chirac, will be held May 5.