The shock second-place finish for extreme right-winger Jean-Marie Le Pen in the first round of France’s presidential elections Sunday had the world’s papers reaching for natural disaster metaphors. Le Monde, Le Figaro, and Libération of France, Israel’s Ha’aretz, Le Temps of Switzerland, Le Soir of Belgium, and Spain’s El País all likened the results to an “earthquake.” Le Parisien went with the simple headline “Shock,” while La Repubblica of Italy said a “thunderbolt” had exploded over Europe. Le Pen will now face off against incumbent President Jacques Chirac, who polled a desultory 19.88 percent of the vote, on May 5.
The Times of London pointed out that there was nothing natural about this disaster: “If this is a political earthquake then it has not struck especially swiftly.” Le Pen’s 17.2 percent result Sunday compares with his 14.4 percent in the first round of 1988’s presidential election and 15.1 percent in 1995. The big change this year was the underperformance of the established parties. Le Monde noted that only 40 percent of voters supported parties with representation in the National Assembly.
How did Le Pen, described by the populist British tabloid the Sun as a “racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic nasty piece-of-work,” outpoll the serving Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin? Most commentators blamed what Libération described as the “atomization” of the left. Since most voters felt that a Chirac-Jospin runoff was inevitable, they supported fringe candidates in the first round to protest the increasingly centrist views of both mainstream parties. Trotskyite candidates won 11 percent of the vote, Greens around 10 percent, and the candidate of the Hunting, Fishing, Nature, and Traditions Party another 5 percent. The Times declared, “This was democracy, of a sort, run wild and it worked to the advantage of the extremists.” French business daily Les Echos worried about the back-to-the-future aspects of the election: “This is the France of 1930, with half fascinated by Stalin and the other half by Mussolini. No thank you. We’ve already been there.”
What’s more, Chirac and Jospin both misread the electorate. Britain’s Daily Telegraph said: “The Front National’s success reflects a deep-seated resentment against the two big parties, which seemed to be offering the same blend of corporatist Euro-correctness.” Le Pen alone responded to widespread concerns about law and order, while Chirac and Jospin “made the mistake of treating M Le Pen as beneath contempt, so ensuring that he was the only politician positioned to benefit from voter unease.” Le Pen ran a smart campaign. According to the Times, “He tuned in to the national mood and toned down his belligerent rhetoric; the mellower version of his old self made him seem more palatable.”
Le Pen’s first-round success is mostly symbolic—no one believes he has any chance of becoming president, and Jospin’s defeat should mobilize left-leaning voters in June’s parliamentary elections. Libération predicted that one of the “aftershocks” from Sunday’s vote will be a return to “cohabitation” (a president from the right and a parliamentary majority from the left) in June. It concluded, “French democracy is comatose.”