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Le Pen upset causes major shock

Defeated Jospin to retire from French politics

Jospin announced his retirement, effective after the presidential runoff election.
Jospin announced his retirement, effective after the presidential runoff election.  

PARIS, France (CNN) -- French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin announced that he was retiring from politics after his loss Sunday to far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen in the first round of presidential elections.

With more than 85 percent of the vote counted, incumbent President Jacques Chirac had 20 percent, compared to 17 percent for Le Pen and 16 percent for Jospin. Those results were in line with exit poll findings. The rest of the vote was split among 13 other candidates.

Le Pen, the head of the right-wing, anti-immigrant National Front party, has long been a controversial fixture in French politics. If the result holds up, he would face Chirac in a second round of balloting on May 5.

In a victory speech, Le Pen called on the French populace for support in the upcoming election.

"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.

CNN's Jim Bittermann has a look at how politicians on the far left and those on the far right of the political spectrum are gaining popularity in France. (April 20)

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On the Scene: Robin Oakley -- 'Shock, horror, disbelief' 
In-depth: France Decides 2002 

Le Pen described himself Sunday as "socially to the left, economically to the right and nationally of France."

He added, "France is for the French."

Jospin, who has been France's prime minister since 1997, said Sunday's results were "like a thunderbolt ... particularly worrying for France and for our democracy."

He said he would quit politics when the runoff was over, but urged leftist parties to regroup for parliamentary elections "so as to prepare for the reconstruction of the future."

It is the first time such a right-wing candidate will have had such strong crack at becoming president, and the first time since 1969 that the Socialists have not had a candidate in a presidential runoff.

"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."

Chirac called for national unity, a clear appeal to left-wing voters.  

Chirac said the upcoming runoff would determine the future of France and its role in Europe.

"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 and to restore the unity of the state," he said.

In an effort to stop Le Pen, leading figures in the Jospin campaign were already encouraging French voters to support Chirac on May 5.

"We will say clearly we don't want Mr. Le Pen, coming from the far right, to be president," said Socialist Party official Marisol Touraine.

Turnout was low by French standards, with less than three-quarters of those eligible turning out to vote. Many voters, dissatisfied with the expected choice between Chirac and Jospin, decided to stay home.

"This is not a triumph for Chirac," said political analyst Dominique Moisi. "People didn't go to vote."

But the National Front's Web site urged its members to vote. "To abstain from (voting) is to vote Chirac or Jospin. For the patriots, to vote is a duty," a party statement read.

Moisi called the apathy of French voters an "Americanization" of the French political system, that caused a "huge personal defeat for Jospin."

"I fully take responsibility for this failure," said Jospin during his retirement announcement. He encouraged his followers to support Socialist candidates in the June legislative elections.

Le Pen's showing is the strongest for any far-right candidate since the Fifth Republic was founded after World War II.
Le Pen's showing is the strongest for any far-right candidate since the Fifth Republic was founded after World War II.  

At Jospin's campaign headquarters, there was shock and disbelief among many of the prime minister's campaign workers, some of whom were in tears.

"He worked hard ... he was an honest man. He was convinced that would be enough," said Daniel Marchac, a friend of Jospin's. Marchac said the results were a condemnation of the left, rather than a sign of praise for the right.

Chirac and Jospin, who have had to share power under a co-habitation system, have been perceived by voters as promoting similar programs.

This was the third presidential campaign for Le Pen, who has taken a strong stance against immigration and has been accused of being anti-Semitic, a charge he has denied. He has tied immigration to rising crime rates, which was a major issue in Sunday's ballot.

The immigration issue that helped Le Pen Sunday has also helped far-right candidates in Denmark, the Netherlands and Austria in recent elections.

"Mr. Chirac decided to run on the sole issue of security" and the more that security was an issue, the better Le Pen looked to voters disillusioned by rising crime and security issues, said Touraine. She added that although Le Pen apparently convinced some voters otherwise, "there is no automatic link between immigration and crime."

Lellouche said now France had no right to chastise Austria for its support of ultra-nationalist Joerg Haider, since French voters showed a similar bent in this election.

Moisi added, "For the first time in a major European country, the extreme right is close to 20 percent. It's happened in medium-sized countries like Austria, but not in one of the big three. It's in a way a crisis of democracy. It's really bad news, not only for France, but for Europe and democracy in Europe."

Voters worried about crime and employment 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)

The elections for the French legislature are forthcoming in June. Moisi said there could be a backlash, with voters electing Socialists to balance the government.

Chirac, 69, has seemingly shrugged off sleaze allegations that have dogged the latter years of his presidency. (Profile)

He is currently protected by presidential immunity, but if he loses the election, investigating judges want to question him over several corruption scandals, some dating back to his tenure as Paris mayor from 1977 to 1995.

Jospin, 64, is a former professor who had hoped to capitalize on his government's positive economic record since he came to power in a surprising 1997 election. (Profile)

Anxious not to alienate centrist voters who hold the decisive votes in the second round, the two top contenders ran defensive campaigns with law and order the main issue. Analysts say the strategy appears to have backfired, with apathy running high after five years of power-sharing.

To make matters worse, in some regions the vote fell in the middle of school holidays, meaning some parents were not around to cast ballots in their home town.

-- CNN European Political Editor Robin Oakley and CNN Correspondent Jim Bittermann contributed to this report.


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