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France still roiled by 2002 election

By
ELIZABETH BRYANT, United Press International

PARIS, April 21 (UPI) -- A year after National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen placed second in French presidential elections, the country's political establishment continues to digest the seismic results.

From a spate of analyses and editorials of the April-May 2002 voting, to the government's hardening line against fundamentalist Islam, to polls showing voters may not have changed all that much over a year, the fallout of the far-right's influence is being felt in ways large and small.

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The anniversary was marked most obviously by the National Front itself, which had its annual congress last weekend in Nice.

Not surprisingly, affiliates reelected 75-year-old Le Pen as president, even though they relegated his daughter, Marine, to a lackluster 34th place out of 100, in the Front's central committee. But on Monday, Le Pen overrode that sentiment and appointed his 34-year-old daughter as the party's vice-president.

"It's not very serious," Le Pen said of his daughter's low rank, in remarks reported by France 2 TV. "It's nervous twitching by party apparatchiks, faced with something that imposes."

A new poll suggests Le Pen's party continues to wield influence among the French electorate. Seven out of 10 French believe a far-right candidate could again place second in the 2007 presidential race, according to the Ipsos survey, to be broadcast Monday on France 2.

Other polls suggest that President Jacques Chirac would again have beaten his former Socialist prime minister and top rival, Lionel Jospin, had elections taken place this year.

The Left remains weak and divided since Jospin's demise. The former prime minister announced his political retirement last May, although he has resumed public appearances in recent weeks.

Indeed, the leftist Liberation newspaper suggested, last year's decision to back center-right Chirac in the second round of elections continues to haunt leftist politicians. The French president won the second vote, in May, by a landslide.

Officially, the newspaper said, the reaction is "je ne regrette rien." Nonetheless, Le Figaro wrote, Socialist politicians still ponder "a terrible decision, which left a bitter taste."

For its part, Le Journal du Dimanche argued France's mainstream politicians still cannot answer the needs of their electorate.

"A year later, we demand hope," the newspaper wrote in an editorial that criticized by the country's Left and Right for failing to adopt serious and frank positions toward problems confronting the French.

Nonetheless, Chirac continues to enjoy widespread popularity, boosted by his anti-war stance on Iraq.

In the most recent survey, published Sunday in Le Journal du Dimanche, 65 percent of French voters declared themselves fairly or very satisfied with Chirac's performance, compared to 67 percent in March.

But the government's domestic agenda has proved less popular. French workers and employers have widely criticized plans to overhaul the country's pension system. The government's very obvious mark on a newly established Islamic Council of France is also controversial.

On Saturday, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy was booed by Muslim activists after announcing women could not wear headscarves in photos for government identity papers.

"That's my response to April 21," said Sarkozy, in apparent condemnation of extremism in all its forms.

Le Pen is expected to run next year in regional elections, representing the Provence-Alps-French Riviera area. Winning the vote -- in a region which is a traditional Front stronghold -- would give Le Pen a new political boost.

But other signs indicate the far right's influence is diminishing. A CSA poll, published Monday found that 13 percent of French said they agreed with the National Front's positions -- compared to 19 percent last year.

And some 71 percent of French believed the party represented a danger for democracy. That figure is slightly above the 68 percent in 2002, according to the survey reported in Le Parisien newspaper.

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