French appeal to keep out Le Pen
PARIS, France -- French politicians from left to right are urging a common front to defeat far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in the next round of France's presidential election.
The result sent shockwaves through Europe and ended the career of third-placed Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.
With more than 99 percent of the vote counted, Chirac had 19.7 percent, Le Pen 17.06 percent and Jospin 16.05 percent, according to the Interior Ministry.
Up to 10,000 protesters marched in Paris shouting "Le Pen is a fascist" and "I am ashamed," with smaller demonstrations in at least five other cities, including Lyon and Strasbourg.
Police fired tear gas at hundreds of demonstrators in the capital's Place de la Concorde and protesters smashed shop and restaurant windows in the city.
Press reaction was equally heated. "The Earthquake," blazed Le Figaro, France's top-selling newspaper, while left-leaning daily Liberation in a single-word front-page headline above a photo of Le Pen, screamed "Non." (Press reaction - full story)
"The French political system, tottering for years, has imploded," it said in an editorial.
"This is no less than a major earthquake in French political life," said Pierre Lellouche of the Chirac campaign. "This is a massive collapse of the French left."
But Le Pen, head of the anti-immigrant National Front party, has rebuffed widespread criticism of his success in the polls, saying he "is not a dictator" but represents mainstream voters, and blamed Chirac and Jospin for their own poor performances.
In an exclusive interview with CNN, he said: "They have been co-habiting (as president and prime minister) for years, and there were a lot of themes they had agreed not to talk about.
"I said three years ago that Jospin would be (politically) killed by a divided majority ... and I am not afraid of Chirac."
Pollsters who failed to predict the rise of Le Pen in the first round have forecast a second-round sweep for Chirac as party leaders across the political spectrum called on supporters to back the incumbent to ensure Le Pen is kept out of power.
"We will say clearly we don't want Mr. Le Pen, coming from the far right, to be president," said Socialist official Marisol Touraine.
French Communist Party national secretary Marie-George Buffet called for an "anti-far-right barrage" in the second round. Early opinion polls forecast that Chirac, 69, could win up to 80 percent of the vote in two weeks' time.
In a victory speech, Chirac, too, called on the country to defend the democratic values of "tolerance and respect."
"I would like to remind all French men and French women to gather together to defend human rights, to guarantee the cohesion of the nation and to affirm the unity of the republic," Chirac said.
But Le Pen urged people to go beyond the traditional notions of French politics. "You -- the small ones, the ones who've been excluded, those of you who've got no recognition -- don't allow yourselves to be divided up into the old divisions of the left and the right." he said.
Le Pen described himself as "socially to the left, economically to the right and nationally of France." He added, "France is for the French."
Jospin, humiliated after a dull campaign that failed to capitalise on his government's economic record, announced he would quit politics after the second round, leaving the left leaderless in the run-up to parliamentary elections in June.
His resignation announcement means he will step down as prime minister on May 6.
After the June elections, President Jacques Chirac will choose a replacement from the party which holds the majority in parliament.
Former professor Jospin had been attempting to focus on his government's positive economic record since he came to power in a surprising 1997 election. (Profile of Jospin)
But CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley reported that at the Jospin headquarters on Sunday night his party workers simply could not believe what had happened. "They were embracing each other, they were in tears, they were in shock," he said.
"But they did recognise, at the same time, that Jospin had not fought an effective campaign."
Chirac, bidding for a second term as he fights a string of corruption allegations, polled just 19.6 percent of the vote, the lowest turnout of any frontrunner in a presidential election since the foundation of France's Fifth Republic in 1958.
The head-to-head second round vote between Chiraac and Le Pen will take place on May 5.
Chirac had earlier appeared to have shrugged off the sleaze allegations that have dogged the latter years of his presidency. (Profile of Chirac)
National Front leader Le Pen, who once called the Holocaust a detail of history, took 17 percent of the vote, one point more than Jospin, according to a count of 97 percent of the ballot. (Profile of Le Pen)
A record 27.6 percent of the electorate abstained from the contest, fought by an unprecedented field of 16 contenders.
Le Pen, a 73-year-old former paratrooper, tapped a rich vein of public concern over security, crime and immigration in a campaign that Chirac and Jospin, constrained by five years of awkward power sharing, fought largely on generalities.
Voters had been predicted to flock to candidates on the far left and right, including Arlette Laguiller of the hard-left Worker's Struggle. (Full story)
"Don't be afraid to dream, you the little people, the foot soldiers, the excluded ... you the miners, the steelworkers, workers of all those industries ruined by the Euro-globalisation of Maastricht," Le Pen said.
The left's disarray also raised the odds that Chirac could win a centre-right majority in legislative elections for a new National Assembly on June 9 and 16.
Le Pen, written off until recently as a no-hope rabble rouser, polled just 0.74 percent of the vote in his first presidential bid in 1974 and scored 15 percent at the previous election in 1995.
His defeat of Jospin was the latest in a series of blows to the European left that began in Italy last year, spread to Denmark and Portugal and could engulf the Netherlands and Germany next.
Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats suffered a stinging defeat in the state of Saxony-Anhalt, Germany's most economically depressed region, on Sunday in the last electoral test before national elections in September.
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