WASHINGTON, April 25 (UPI) -- Let us think the unthinkable. After all, very often, the unthinkable does happen. Can Jean-Marie Le Pen become president of France? Indeed he can. Le Pen can win.
As that stickler for precise usage and meaning Abraham Lincoln would have put it, to say that he "can" win is not to say that he "will." Nor is it to say that it is probable that he will win. Incumbent President Jacques Chirac may well indeed win a consecutive second term as president of France as literally all commentators, including our previous United Press International analysis, have confidently predicted.
But a careful study of the voting patterns in the first round of the French presidential election this past Sunday shows a Chirac victory is by no means a done deal. Chirac's core support is far less than anyone dreamed and Le Pen's core support is at least as strong, possibly more so.
And when you look at the low voter turnout last Sunday and the protest fragmentation of those that did vote, you make a very striking and unexpected discovery. A lot of those who did vote for protest candidates on the left last Sunday look much more likely to vote for Le Pen than Chirac next time. And Le Pen also stands a good chance of corralling a lot more of the stay-at-home votes from last Sunday than anyone expects.
First, take a look at the actual voting data from last Sunday's first-round election. Chirac polled a miserably low 19.88 percent, Le Pen a surprisingly high 16.86 percent. But Le Pen's core vote will be even higher next time as another 2.34 percent voted for a rival extreme-right splinter candidate, Bruno Megret, who bolted a few years ago from Le Pen's National Front. Those votes will certainly go to Le Pen the next time around. That gives him a core vote of more than 19 percent, within a percentage point of Chirac's.
Next, look at the complex break-up of the left wing vote. The left in France is far from the spent force it appeared to be from Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's miserable 16.18 percent showing, two-thirds of 1 percent behind Le Pen. In all, the potpourri of left candidates won a combined total of 44 percent of the vote. Some 28 percent of the total vote, or almost two-thirds of the total left vote, went to candidates other than Jospin.
That 28 percent and how it votes is going to be crucial in deciding who will be the next president of France, and the fate of the great Fifth Republic. Conventional wisdom says it will swing unanimously behind Chirac. But Conventional wisdom, as is so often the case, could be wildly wrong.
Conventional wisdom assumes that because those 28 percent of total voters last Sunday voted left wing, they will look with disgust and horror at Le Pen as a right-wing extreme nationalist, or even proto-fascist. They will, it is therefore assumed, rally in overwhelming numbers behind Chirac and sweep him back in triumph to the Elysee Palace.
But those 28 percent of voters last Sunday not only did not vote for Chirac, they also did not vote for Jospin. And the reason they did not vote for Jospin was because they thought he was too much like Chirac.
The two men shared power in a cozy cohabitation relationship over the past five years and those 28 percent of voters did not like it. Although France grew steadily in prosperity in those years, core unemployment remained high, crime spiraled out of control, and popular disquiet over France's huge 7 million Algerian immigrant population continued to grow.
Most of all, those 28 percent of voters disliked the fact that Jospin followed President Clinton, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and British Prime Minister Tony Blair in their pragmatic Third Way economic policies. The popular perception in France -- albeit in many respects a misleading one -- is that globalization is proceeding at breakneck pace in the nation and that national identity and culture are endangered. There is also a widespread sense that Chirac and Jospin have sold out the national interest, not just to international globalizing corporations but to the 15-nation European Union's governing commission in Brussels.
There is a sweeping irony to those assessments and a remarkable amount of backhanded poetic justice in French voters' reaction to them. For Chirac and Jospin have enthusiastically fostered the deepening and further bureaucratic centralization of the EU precisely because they want to shape it into a global, anti-American bloc with high protectionist trading barriers. But in their enthusiasm for doing this, and molding the EU into a magnified tool for French interests on the world stage, they have heedlessly diluted French national sovereignty and ordinary French voters do not like it.
That 28 percent of voters who rejected Jospin in the first round because they thought he was going to sell out French national interests to the EU are certainly not going to swing behind Chirac in the second round when they know he embraced those policies all the more enthusiastically.
On the contrary, they are far more likely to rally round Le Pen because he has unabashedly championed restoring the French national currency, the franc, and putting national interests ahead of the faceless bureaucrats in Brussels as well as the imagined sinister corporate American masterminds in New York and Washington.
Mass tactical defection to Le Pen from the fragmented left is also exceptionally likely from the three main groups among them. These are: the supporters of former Defense Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenment, the Trotskyites and the Communists.
None of these groups is likely to take Le Pen seriously as a credible long-term fascist or proto-fascist master of France. The Trotskyites and Communists are far more likely to follow the tactics of the German Communists in the 1920s-early 30s Weimar Republic when they made common cause with the Nazis to topple the middle class, moderate, democratic republic and destroy the mainstream parties like the Catholic Center and the Social Democrats who supported it.
Those tactics backfired catastrophically on the extreme left in 1930s Germany. But 1930s Germany happened seven decades ago. And Le Pen, for all his demagogic brilliance and tactical political skills, is 73 years old and appears to be more of a Pierre Poujade or at most a Juan Peron than an Adolf Hitler, or even a Benito Mussolini.
The one pattern here that may well reassert itself from the 1930s is the tendency of extreme left parties to make tactical, short term common cause with the extreme right on the hope of pulverizing the moderate, bourgeois, middle class center.
The Communists have dwindled under the prosperous, stable Fifth Republic from being one of the largest parties in France for decades now to a derisory 5 percent of the vote. But if that 5 percent were thrown in Round Two to Le Pen, it might prove to have more decisive political impact than the Communists' 40 percent-plus votes did decades ago.
The same calculation applies for the same reason to the Trotskyites and for slightly different reasons to Chevenment's supporters.
Chevenment is far to the left of Jospin and, for that matter, of late Socialist President Francois Mitterrand. Over the past decade, that political position never paid off for him. But if France becomes destabilized and radicalized, with the left regrouping in a hurry -- and seeking to radicalize and revitalize itself -- to meet the unexpected challenge of a President Le Pen, then Chevenment could plausibly present himself to them as "L'Homme De L'Heure" -- the Man of the Moment.
Le Pen does not even need all that 28 percent to win. But if most of it were to break for him, then Chirac could find himself facing an unexpected uphill struggle to woo back the voters who dumped him in the first round.
Chirac cannot even assume -- as he probably does -- that the stay-at-home 28 percent of voters -- an exceptionally high figure -- last Sunday will flock out to support him this time round. After all, they all stayed at home because they did not want either him or Jospin to win. Some of them indeed will turn out to keep Le Pen out of the Elysee. But others among them will also turn out because for the first time they realize Le Pen can actually win.
Those 28 percent of voters were not turned off by Le Pen or by the Communists or the Trotskyites for that matter. They were turned off because they were convinced that the only real choice they had was between Chirac and Jospin, and that that was no choice at all.
Now Le Pen has unexpectedly given them a choice. The principle of voter consolidation that always works for the final two candidates in a Fifth Republic presidential run off vote will now favor him at least as much as it favors Chirac.
In some respects, it can be expected to favor Le Pen more so. He is a fresh face, if not on the national scene, then certainly as a prospective presidential candidate. He is a dynamic, at times even electrifying campaigner. Chirac, is an old face -- all too familiar, burned out and tired. He was never charismatic even at his best. And his campaign skills and tactics up to last Sunday's vote were execrably poor.
Ironically, if Chirac does indeed go down to defeat against Le Pen, it will be because, while blamed by Le Pen's far right and the Communist-Trotskyite left alike as being the champion of globalization, he did not practice globalization in the one area it could have helped him, getting American campaign masterminds like Karl Rove from the right or James Carville from the left to revitalize his flagging campaign.
As it is, Chirac finds himself backed into an ironic corner indeed. His only real hope of winning is to mobilize the moderate Socialist hard-core supporters of Jospin behind him. Even with them, his victory will be by no means assured.
But he must have that Socialist 16 percent that voted last Sunday along with his own disastrously low 19.88 percent to have a stable core of 35 percent-36 percent if he wants to be in striking distance of victory at all. And even then he will face an uphill fight to woo at least half of the 28 percent who stayed at home last Sunday.
Chirac can do it. But it will not be easy. And if he thinks his triumph is a done deal, he will plunge himself into humiliating defeat and his nation into the kind of chaos and crisis it has not known for two generations. For Le Pen can win.