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French socialists lose out

The earthquake that shook the European political landscape on Sunday, when far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen won second place in French presidential elections, has already toppled one giant.

Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, humbled into third place, announced soon after the results became known that he was quitting political life after being struck by what he called "a thunderbolt."

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Commentators across Europe saw the result as confirmation of a resurgence of extreme right-wing parties, which have done well in Austria, Holland, and Belgium recently. Mr. Jospin's defeat also followed socialist losses in Italy last year, and in Denmark and Portugal earlier this year. Center-left governments in Germany and Holland face tough elections soon.

Polls indicate that Mr. Le Pen is a long way from winning over a majority of French voters, however. Still, aftershocks are likely to continue to unsettle the French political scene after the stunning success of a man who has built his career on a populist platform of anti-immigrant, anti-Europe nationalist rhetoric.

Le Pen will face incumbent president Jacques Chirac, who topped the first round vote on Sunday, in a decisive run-off on May 5. Chirac is expected to win that election easily, on the strength of votes from those who fear Le Pen's brand of xenophobia. But the result, giving 17.3 percent to Le Pen ahead of Jospin's 16.2 percent, threw into sharp relief a side of France that shamed many commentators and politicians.

"We can't ignore the fact that there is support for extreme-right ideas in France, just like in other countries in Europe," says Gilles Corman, a political analyst with the Taylor Nelson Sofres Polling Institute, the largest independent pollsters in Europe. "Maybe this result will trigger a European-wide reflection of what is happening and maybe the tide will turn."

Chirac has called on all voters to unite against Le Pen, saying that "what is at stake is the very idea we have of mankind, his rights and his dignity."

Le Pen, who ran on an antiestablishment ticket that played well at a time when voters seemed disenchanted with all their traditional leaders, urged "you the little people, the footsoldiers, the excluded ... you the miners, the steelworkers, workers of all those industries ruined by Euro-globalization ... don't be afraid to dream."

Protests at the result broke out in cities across France, drawing as many as 10,000 people in Paris early Monday. But the real battle will be fought at parliamentary elections in June. "We have revenge to take," said Socialist Party Chairman François Hollande. But his party will be hampered in the campaign by the lack of a leader, after Jospin's sudden departure, and by devastated morale.

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Le Pen, however, is far from sure of winning a significant number of seats in these elections, even if he polls as well as he did on Sunday. Legislative election rules make it hard for smaller groups to win seats, and many voters who chose Le Pen to express their dissatisfaction with the current government are less likely to choose his party when voting for parliamentary representatives, observers say. This makes a parliament dominated by Chirac's Rally for the Republic (RPR) party the most likely outcome.

The Socialists were not the only major party to do badly on Sunday. Even winning the election, Chirac attracted fewer votes than any other outgoing president has ever done since World War II. A raft of protest candidates from the extreme left and the extreme right attracted unprecedented support, and abstention was a record 28.5 per cent.

Le Pen, who revels in his reputation as a brawling, coarse-tongued political street fighter, represents the old-style extreme-right-wing European political figure, often branded neofascist. Fellow right-wingers such as Jörg Haider in Austria and Gianfranco Fini in Italy resisted his attempts to form a European far-right union, considering him too outspoken.

• Nanette van der Laan in Paris contributed to this report.