For France’s Le Pen, an End to Provocative Career?

Local media are rejoicing at the extreme right’s poor results in the first round of French elections.

“Strong participation, weakening of the extreme right, the revenge of April 21, 2002,” the newspaper Le Monde announced Monday morning.

“Le Pen falling hard,” Liberation wrote.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, head of the far-right National Front Party, or FN, received 10.5 percent of Sunday’s vote in the presidential balloting, compared to 16.9 percent five years ago when he stunned voters by reaching the runoff against incumbent Jacques Chirac.

This year he placed fourth after Nicolas Sarkozy (moderate right), Segolene Royal (left) and Francois Bayrou (center). Three-quarters of the votes were divided among the traditional right, left and center parties.

For Le Pen, 79, the results may mark the end of his political career, or at least his ambition to become president.

“The French have been led into making an error. I sadly predict for them an unpleasant future,” he said when the results were known, appearing bitter and defeated.

“I thought the French were unhappy,” Le Pen said. “The French are very happy and the proof is that they have just re-elected — my goodness, with a very comfortable lead and even a little more — the parties that have been in power and who are responsible for the situation in France.”

Le Pen said he would give his supporters instructions on how to vote in the second round in a speech May 1, when supporters of the far-right traditionally hold a Joan of Arc parade.

Sarcozy and Royal will meet in a runoff election May 6 to decide Chirac’s successor.

Le Pen finds himself in an uncomfortable position, having attacked Sarkozy strongly in the final days of the campaign, even declaring him unsuitable to be president because he is the son of an immigrant.

Still, in a television interview March 21, Le Pen admitted that it would be “less difficult” for hi! m to urg e his supporters to vote for Sarkozy in the runoff than if Chirac were running again.

A former Foreign Legionnaire who fought in Algeria and Vietnam, Le Pen has led France’s far right for more than 30 years. He has been accused of promoting xenophobia and anti-Semitism with statements seen as outlandish.

His daughter Marine, a member of the European Parliament who works closely with him, might run for the head of the National Front Party when her father steps down.

Among Le Pen’s comments over the years was one in which he claimed the concentration camp gas chambers were only a small detail of history, for which he was given a heavy fine.

In 1986 Le Pen called Jewish journalists a disgrace to the profession. Later that year he was found guilty of vindicating war crimes for editing a hate-filled “hymn of the Nazi Party.” A year later he was given yet another fine for inciting discrimination and racial hatred.

In recent years Le Pen, encouraged by his daughter, has presented a more moderate image, a strategy disputed within his own party. He even tried to find voters in the recent election among immigrant communities and French citizens of Arab origin.

Still, he slipped more then once, saying that blacks and whites are different, and “regretting” that Chirac took responsibility for the anti-Jewish acts of the wartime Vichy government.

During 35 years of political activity Le Pen’s main issue has remained immigration, which he identifies as the source of France’s perceived decline. Le Pen would like to change the country’s voting system, re-establish the death penalty and end immigration.

Refuting claims that he is a racist, Le Pen says, “I simply love my country.”

Le Pen pulled a political stunner five years ago when he defeated Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin to make the runoff against Chirac. This time, French pundits say, voters recovered their reason.

“Each first election round has its! own sur prise,” Les Echos wrote Monday. “Francois Bayrou and Jean-Marie Le Pen were both presented these last weeks as dark horses able to trouble this very uncertain election round. But the surprise of April 22, 2007, was that there was none.”

Jean-Marie Colombani, editor-in-chief of Le Monde, congratulated his countrymen for partially erasing “Lepinisme” and considered Sunday’s results a double victory: “A victory of democracy itself and a victory over the extremists.”

French politicians and intellectuals expressed relief that their country, which purports to be a champion of human rights in the international arena, rejected its own extreme right.

Sarkozy’s strong positions on immigration, security and national identity surely damaged Le Pen’s candidacy. Sarkozy, 52, of the ruling UMP, managed to woo at least one-quarter of Le Pen voters. Sarkozy’s age also may have contributed to his appeal.

Philippe de Villiers, presidential candidate of the Movement for France, also attracted some FN voters, getting 2.5 percent of the vote — more than opinion polls had predicted — on a campaign denouncing the “Islamization” of France.

Opinion polls taken after Sunday’s results predicted that Sarkozy would win 52 percent to 54 percent of the vote in the runoff, compared to 46 percent to 48 percent for Royal.

Sarkozy and Royal now are both courting the third candidate, Bayrou, who received 18 percent of the vote. The runoff could indeed hinge on who has more appeal to the middle ground.

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