Are the fascists about to take over France? That's what you might think from the reaction to the first round of French presidential elections on April 21. It was a protest vote, all right. But mainly against politics as usual.

For democracy to work, you have to be able to throw the bums out. That means an election has to be a choice between the "ins" and the "outs." What happens if the leading contenders are both "ins"? You get exactly what happened in France: a record number of nonvoters. In other words, a Gallic shrug.

Even though there were 16 candidates on the ballot, the polls and the press coverage depicted the race as a choice between two incumbents. One was President Jacques Chirac, a conservative. The other was Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, a socialist. Those two have been governing France together for five years now, in an arrangement the French call (oh, those naughty French!) "cohabitation."

In fact, they were the same two candidates who ran against each other in the previous presidential election, in 1995. Chirac won, but two years later, under France's unique dual-executive system, the socialists emerged victorious in legislative elections and Jospin became prime minister. The idea is that the prime minister runs the government while the president runs the country. Or something like that.

It's a distinction lost on most voters, who saw both candidates as part of the status quo. Both are political insiders. Both are in their 60s. Neither is particularly appealing to voters. And both saw their poll ratings drop during the campaign.

As political analyst Philippe Moreau Defarges observed, "It's clear that the masters of the game in France are too old, and they are not adapted to the present situation." The present situation is that French voters are worried about crime. The crime rate in France went up 8 percent last year. According to an Ipsos exit poll, voters' No. 1 issue was "personal security."

So what's a disgruntled voter to do? Look at the results of the April 21 balloting. Chirac came in first with just under 20 percent of the vote. Hardly a soaring vote of confidence in the incumbent. Jospin came in third, with 16 percent. That put the prime minister out of the race—and out of politics. "I am going to retire from political life after the end of the presidential election," Jospin announced when the results came in.

The sensation was the second-place finisher, who now goes into the runoff on May 5—Jean-Marie Le Pen, an unsavory character from the extreme right with a reputation for bigotry. Europe was outraged. When Le Pen attempted to address the European Parliament two days later, the legislators greeted him with catcalls and held up signs saying, "Non!"

Remember how shocked Americans were when Pat Buchanan won the 1996 Republican primary in New Hampshire? Imagine if Buchanan had won the Republican nomination. Now you understand why the French used such words as "earthquake," "thunderbolt," and "nightmare" to describe what happened on April 21.

How did it happen?

Remember, this was a primary. When people vote in a primary, they often vote to send a message. Just like in New Hampshire. The difference is that the New Hampshire primary is only the first stage in an extended process of choosing our presidential nominees. In France, the first-round ballot is decisive in choosing the final contenders. Let the French experience be a warning to Americans who argue the United States would be better off with a single national primary.

In France last month, disillusionment was particularly strong among voters on the left who objected to Jospin's cohabitation with the right. The prime minister had offended many of his supporters when he declared that, though he himself was a socialist, his "platform was not socialist."

According to the Ipsos exit poll, only a third of voters who identified with the left voted for Jospin. Some 16 percent voted for one of three Trotskyist candidates, 12 percent for the Green candidate, 8 percent for the Communist—and 7 percent for Le Pen. After all, it was a "free vote." Everyone knew Jospin and Chirac would win. Why not send the prime minister a message?

The basic problem was that neither of the two incumbent candidates was in a position to offer change. In the exit poll, only 7 percent of Chirac voters endorsed the view, "He represents change." Technically, Jospin may have been the challenger, but only 18 percent of his supporters saw him as a candidate of change. Le Pen was different. Almost half of his voters said their man represented change.

In addition, more than half of Le Pen's supporters said, "He responds to my concerns." Only 37 percent of Jospin voters felt that way about their man. Among Chirac's supporters, the figure was just 21 percent.

Even so, the vote was not exactly a landslide for Le Pen. His 17 percent showing was only a couple of points better than the last two times he ran. The big winners were the 28 percent of French voters who abstained. That was many more than voted for any single candidate. The abstainers threw the system into turmoil.

And they made their point: A choice between two discredited incumbents and a bunch of extremists is no choice at all. What French voters said on April 21—many by refusing to vote—was, "Give us better choices."

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