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Sunday, 21 April, 2002, 23:28 GMT 00:28 UK
Analysis: Le Pen's final triumph
National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen
By voting for Le Pen, voters have shown their distaste with the establishment
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Hugh Schofield
By Hugh Schofield in Paris
The triumph of far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in the first round of the presidential election is not just a deep humiliation for the Socialists of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, it is also a thunderbolt sent into France's dilapidated political constitution.

Jospin was quick to draw the conclusions from his catastrophic performance and true to character did the decent thing, announcing his resignation.

French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin
Mr Jospin did the decent thing and resigned
In two weeks time he will have left France's political stage, and the Socialists will be looking for a new leader to take them into the parliamentary elections in June.

It is true that Jospin's defeat owed much to the rise of far-left candidates such as the Trotskyist Arlette Laguiller, who drew on working class resentment of the prime minister's consensual economic policies.

  Click here to see first round election turnouts since 1974

But he can only blame himself for failing to stop the rot during the campaign.

A candidate who managed to show a bit more human warmth and a bit less frosty finger-wagging might have fared rather better.

Chirac's victory discredited

As for President Jacques Chirac, he can look happily at the prospect of two weeks in which the whole of the political establishment will rally around in rejection of Le Pen and assure him an overwhelming victory in round two on 5 May.

His next five years at the Elysee palace are safely in place, and the moment when investigators start grilling him over those corruption claims at Paris city hall can be put off to the Greek calends.

French President Jacques Chirac
Mr Chirac was not far ahead of Mr Le Pen either

But what kind of a victory will it be in a run-off in which the half of the French electorate who align themselves with the left are permitted no candidate of their own?

Mr Chirac's claim on the presidency is already discredited because of the questions over his integrity and his non-existent record of achievement during five years of cohabitation with Jospin.

His authority is even further weakened after picking up only 20% of the vote in Sunday's first round.

It may have been Mr Jospin who was beaten by Mr Le Pen, but Mr Chirac was not that far ahead either.

His new term will begin under bad auspices.

Distaste for establishment

It is - as commentators have been saying all evening - a "political earthquake."

French voters have shown their distaste with an establishment which they regard as aging, corrupt and out of touch.

But they have done so by giving an unprecedented hand-up to the man who in the eyes of the rest of the world represents all that is the most backward - and inward-looking about their country.

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Senior French politicians discuss Le Pen's success
"Le Pen was the only one to talk about what frightened people"
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