TOPICS > Politics

France’s Election Shock

April 22, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: The surprise election in France: We begin with this report narrated by Kwame Holman.

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 have borne for the last 20 years all the mistakes and the embezzlement 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 that 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 Lionel 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 percent, the lowest margin for a major party political candidate since 1958. Le Pen took 17 percent, Jospin 16 percent. There were an unprecedented 16 candidates on the ballot yesterday and a record 28 percent of the electorate stayed home. The runoff election, where voters will choose between Le Pen and Chirac, will be held May 5.

MARGARET WARNER: To help explain what French commentators are calling a “political earthquake,” we turn to Jacqueline Grapin, president of the European Institute in Washington. She’s a former writer and editor for the French newspapers Le Monde and Le Figaro. And Jim Hoagland, foreign affairs columnist for the Washington Post. He reported from France in the late 80’s, and continues to travel there frequently. Welcome to you both. Jacqueline Grapin, how did this happen?

JACQUELINE GRAPIN: Well, this is a shock, but this is not a tragedy. It is a shock because the left, which represents 43 percent of the electorate, is not represented in the second round of the election. But it’s not a tragedy because two weeks from now, Mr. Le Pen will be out. How did it happen? It’s a product of both protest vote and the electoral system, the constitutional system. The French election is very different from the American election. It’s very democratic. Everybody basically can be a candidate provided you have 500 signatures from mayors of cities of any size. And everybody can vote.

Usually there are agreements between candidates and you have only a limited number of candidates on the left and on the right. This time, many candidates on the left and on the right were not very satisfied with their leaders, and you had sixteen candidates, basically eight from the left, six from the right, and the two from the far right. And as a result, the left diluted their votes, spread their votes, and to the surprise of everyone, it was the far right candidate who came out. But two weeks from now in the second round, Mr. Chirac will be elected with a very large majority.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Jim Hoagland, voters knew this was just a preliminary round, so it is sort of a free vote?

JIM HOAGLAND: It’s a vote in which the French like to say that they express their biases, their feelings, regards than their calculations or even their interests. They get a free shot at their politicians. And I would underline what Jacqueline Grapin just said. This is a vote that expresses very strong dissatisfaction with the two leading politicians who were expected to go into the second round. It’s also a vote, I think, that expresses a good bit of fear and of insecurity. This was the theme that Chirac used in his campaign and Le Pen very effectively used in trying to demonize largely Arab, some African immigrants in France and make them responsible for all of France’s problems. And he got away with it.

MARGARET WARNER: Would you agree that fear motivated some of this vote?

JACQUELINE GRAPIN: Certainly it was a part of it. There are two main issues. One is security and crime and the other one is unemployment. And on both grounds, the French are unsatisfied by the government they have had for five years. The American public should remember that the president is from one party, which is conservative, and the prime minister was from one party, which is from the left. So because of this so-called cohabitation, it was very difficult for them to take any efficient action in the last five years.

MARGARET WARNER: Jim, last night and again…particularly last night but also today, Le Pen made a lot of anti-European Union comments. Last night he talked about victims of industries that had been – or workers in industries that had been ruined by what he called Euro-globalization. Talk about that factor.

JIM HOAGLAND: Well, this is the other part of the fear. It is fear of France’s place in a very dramatically changing world, of economic competition that will change a traditional way of life in France. Le Pen understands that and is able to speak the language of the people who feel threatened. As in so many things in France, this is a matter of language. He could speak to the voters in a way that the jargon-filled speeches of many of the other candidates who talked about European construction and the Euro and things that are really abstract. He spoke about their everyday frustrations. You heard in that piece that you just played, really something almost approach poetry in political terms as he spoke to…as he tried to assemble a coalition of the fearful.

MARGARET WARNER: How strong is the anti-EU, anti-globalization feeling, do you think, in France right now?

JACQUELINE GRAPIN: I think it is limited. After all, Jean-Marie Le Pen only had 17 percent of the vote. And overall, the left, which used to be a very anti-European has become European and most of the conservative, various conservative parties are pro-European. So it is very much across the board. I don’t think there is no risk that France will turn its back to Europe. There is absolutely no risk.


JIM HOAGLAND: I think in the terms that Jacqueline has described it, that’s true. But I think you also have to look at some broader factors here. This definitely does add to the legitimacy, if you will, of the neo-Fascist movement in Europe. Le Pen, unlike neo-Fascists in Italy and in Austria, will not have a supporting role in the government when this is over. He will be defeated and defeated badly by Jacques Chirac, but he has pushed the bar up higher in terms of allowing a certain level of participation and voter satisfaction with programs that are frankly racist and neo-Fascist. That’s a danger, not so much for French policy, Jacqueline is right there, but for European politics as a whole.

MARGARET WARNER: Should Americans be alarmed by this? This happened not only in France but we have seen it in Austria and Italy, the Netherlands, elsewhere in Europe this, kind of very far right party, some would say neo-Fascist parties.

JACQUELINE GRAPIN: There are various elements to that. One is that five years ago 13 out of the 15 European governments were socialists. Europe was pink, basically. And now like in any trend in history, you know, it comes to an end and there is a change in the government. Austria has changed. Italy has changed, Portugal has changed; Denmark has changed. Now we have this turn in France.

We’ll see, actually, we will see whatever the vote is because it may be an irony that the vote from yesterday may bring back a socialist majority in the parliament and we will be back to square one with cohabitation again. So it is not absolutely sure that this is going to turn the way people expect it. But then you have the Dutch elections and you have the German elections. Overall, I would say Europe is going to be two years from now, three years from now, probably more conservative than it was three years ago.

MARGARET WARNER: Implications for the United States?

JIM HOAGLAND: I think there are implications for politics throughout the world. I think we are entering a period that the French first round of the presidential election reflects very accurately. And it is a period of confrontation, of polarization and political attitudes. Part of it comes out of September 11. The terrorist attacks on the United States, the American reaction to those, the fact you’ve had such violence in the Middle East between Israelis and Palestinians. It’s creating, I think, a mood among voters of insecurity, almost of trauma in international politics. And I think you see some of that in these results and you’ll see it in other results as the year goes along.

MARGARET WARNER: And is there some anti-Americanism in this?

JIM HOAGLAND: I didn’t see any specific American role in Le Pen’s showing. Le Pen is considered, I think, in many places, as was referred to in your introductory piece, he is remembered for having referred to the Holocaust as a detail of history. He is considered to be anti-Semitic in classical terms. In fact, he appealed to Jewish voters in this by playing on their fears of Arabs. I didn’t pick up in the campaign anything above the normal level, fascination with, jealousy of things American by the French.

MARGARET WARNER: And Jacqueline Grapin also there is definitely an anti-globalization thread here, a sort of resentment of this new world economic order, of which the United States is certainly a major proponent.

JACQUELINE GRAPIN: There is an anti-globalization movement in France but it is mostly a movement from the left rather than from the right. This Le Pen movement comes from, as Jim said, this feeling of insecurity, not coming only from terrorism, but also from local, immediate, very simple crime in villages and cities; more than from globalization. Globalization plays an important role in the division of the left where have you those people that feel that reforms don’t go fast enough and those people who think they go too fast. So that is a factor that explains why there were so many candidates on the left.

MARGARET WARNER: Final question, Jim Hoagland, would you say this is also a message to the two main parties that they need some fresher faces? This was a rerun of the election of ’95.

JIM HOAGLAND: That’s right. The French like to get to know their politicians before they vote for them. Chirac won the presidency on his third time, Francois Mitterrand did that before, Le Pen now is running, I guess, for the fourth time. So there is a certain known factor that they like but I think it has been overdone in France now. It was very much as if Jimmy Carter was running against Lyndon Johnson in this campaign with Chirac, a lovable rogue being the Lyndon Johnson and Jospin being Jimmy Carter. Le Pen turned out to be George Wallace with a lot more appeal than Wallace ever had.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you both very much.