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Stunned French Electorate Rallying Behind Chirac - 2002-05-03

French President Jacques Chirac appears to be set for a landslide victory this Sunday when he faces extreme-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose success in qualifying for the presidential run-off sent shivers through the political establishment in France and across Western Europe. A stunned French electorate seems to be rallying behind Mr. Chirac to make sure Mr. Le Pen does not pull off another surprise.

The latest polls indicate that Mr. Chirac will obtain between 75 and 82 percent of Sunday's vote. But the polls were wrong before the first round of elections on April 21, when they predicted a run-off between Mr. Chirac and Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. Pollsters now say that everything depends on how big the abstention rate is this time around, and whether people who normally vote for leftist parties will actually turn out to support Mr. Chirac.

Mr. Le Pen's opponents took heart from a massive turnout at May Day rallies across France, when more than a million people demonstrated their determination to stop the far-right leader from becoming president.

Mr. Chirac is trying to portray himself as the candidate of national unity and, in a television appearance Thursday night, sought to reach out to voters of all stripes. He says that, once voters have expressed themselves democratically, the president becomes the president of all the French people, without exception.

Analysts say that many French voters supported Mr. Le Pen in the first round because they felt mainstream politicians like Mr. Chirac were out of touch with the issues that matter to them the most, such as rising crime, immigration and political corruption.

Mr. Le Pen has painted himself as the champion of the so-called "little people," who worry about those issues, unemployment, and what they see as France's loss of sovereignty to the European Union and to global business.

The far-right leader dismissed Wednesday's massive mobilization against his candidacy, saying he listens to voters, not to demonstrators. And, at his own May Day rally in Paris, he charged that what he describes as a self-serving political establishment is out to crush him any way it can.

Mr. Le Pen says his opponents include the street, the political parties, the labor unions, the freemasons and a handful of Marxist bishops. And, he says, they have regimented athletes, actors and intellectuals to come out against him.

But what Mr. Le Pen claims is the mobilization of voters against him seems to be having some effect. Odile Meurvet, a housewife in Bordeaux, says Mr. Le Pen must be stopped. She says that, even though she doesn't particularly like Mr. Chirac, she will vote for him because it is necessary to keep Mr. Le Pen's percentage of the vote as small as possible.

Mr. Chirac has been tainted by allegations of corruption going back to his days as mayor of Paris, and he is detested by the French left. Some leftists say they will wear surgical gloves when they vote for him or put clothes pegs on their noses to make the point that they have no other alternative.

Mr. Le Pen's faithful will turn out in force to vote for his populist mix of anti-immigrant, pro-employment and law-and-order promises. Claude Askalovitch, who has written books about the French far-right explains just who these people are.

"They are French fundamentalists. France above all. The France that never really existed," he said. "If France comes back, well [they think], we'll have jobs and a post office next door, and the teachers will be better off."

Le Pen supporters, like Marseilles secretary Josiane Lopez, say Mr. Le Pen is the only candidate who can save France from decline. "The only candidate we haven't tried out is Jean-Marie Le Pen, and I think his program would help sort out all the things that keep getting worse," she said.

Even someone as anti-Le Pen as Marseilles community activist Alain Manouche says the concerns about crime voiced by Le Pen supporters must be addressed by mainstream politicians. "If someone does something bad, he's got to go to jail," he said. "We've got to say that very frankly...even if he's Arab, if he's Jewish, if he's poor, it's not an excuse."

Mr. Manouche says Mr. Le Pen's National Front could gain further support if the political mainstream fails to deal with the problems that turned his fringe candidacy into a political force.

Mr. Le Pen himself, even if he stands no chance of winning Sunday's run-off, has promised to fight on in parliamentary elections next month, and for as long as he can.