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Equal airtime for Le Pen, Chirac

By CNN Senior Correspondent Jim Bittermann

PARIS, France (CNN) -- Things started to change for Jean-Marie Le Pen the moment the election results came in: Suddenly people had to take the extreme-right candidate more seriously -- especially TV people.

In an effort to keep French elections egalitarian, TV networks here have long been required to give exactly the same amount of airtime to each candidate in the election.

That means the ultra-nationalist and his supporters now must get equal coverage with President Jacques Chirac and his backers.

Airtime for all candidates is tracked right down to the second and is available for all to see on a Web site maintained by government television regulators.

In-depth: France Decides 2002 

This election has meant a change for journalists and editors, many of whom had believed the best way to handle someone like Le Pen was to ignore him.

"For years television didn't cover him," says Emmanuel Ostian of TF 1 News. "So he disappeared from the screen for 10 years. But during a campaign you have to broadcast a candidate, and we have to broadcast him now."

And so Le Pen is getting more concentrated media exposure than he has had in his political life. Some believe it will give the extreme right political acceptability. But not everyone shares that view.

"When you deal with Dracula, with a vampire, they fear light, so the more you expose them, the more you say what they really are, the best chances you have that rationality will prevail," says Patrick Sabatier of the newspaper Liberation.

But as the media dissect Le Pen's ideas and put his program on an equal footing with that of Chirac, there is growing apprehension that the gruff former paratrooper is gaining converts.

"I think this is the lesson we have," says David Pujadas, France 2 TV anchorman. "When we speak about him he goes up, when we don't speak about him he is going up also."

In fact, while there are still those who continue to blame the media for Le Pen's rise, others have come to realise it's not the media but his message that's to blame -- a message that, according to the first-round election result, may come closer to addressing the concerns of the average voter than that of much of the French political establishment.




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