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Monday, 22 April, 2002, 17:21 GMT 18:21 UK
French Elections: Ask BBC Correspondent

The BBC's European Affairs correspondent, William Horsley, answered your questions in a LIVE forum.

  Click here to watch the forum.  

Far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen is through to the second round of presidential elections in France.

He has won enough votes to take on Jacques Chirac to become the President of France.

Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who was neck and neck with Mr Chirac in opinion polls ahead of the election, has announced his retirement from political life.

There was a record low turnout for the elections - with nearly 30% of voters staying at home.

But thousands of people turned out to demonstrate against Le Pen and his anti-immigration policies in French cities last night.

What motivated the French to bring about such a surprising result? Could Le Pen become President?

The BBC's European Affairs correspondent, William Horsley, answered your questions in a LIVE forum.



S Casey, UK asks: The post-First World War rise of fascism was blamed on the brutalisation of war, rampant inflation, mass unemployment, real deprivation. What's the excuse now in one of the most affluent parts of the world?

William Horsley:

It's a good question and I think it's a question on lots of people's minds. I think the easy suggestion that Le Pen represents fascism has to be toned down a little bit. It's true that he's made outrageous remarks about the Holocaust, describing them as a detail of history. It's true that he wants to make France for the French and reverse immigration. He says, immigration policy is a disaster for France and that immigrants prevent full employment. All these things are arguments from the Far Right. He himself is very bad tempered - he was actually convicted of striking a political opponent - a women - and he was banned from politics for a while.

Having said all that, the situation is very different and I think you have to accept there's a second reason for the big vote for Le Pen. By the way, only 17% out of a turnout of 70% - so a total of fewer than 5 million votes - still very significant and that is this sense of stagnation in France by the big parties and that is where Le Pen gets most of his support. Many of his supporters this time came obviously from disaffected Communists. So you can say the extremes always rally around an extremist. But it isn't by any means the rise of the Far Right in the sense that we understood it - saying that in the 30s - around somebody who was advocating violence or the overthrow of the political system as such.


Hugh Morgan, UK asks: Why is it so surprising that people voted for someone who was promising to reverse the increasing crime and decline of society in France?

Am I right in saying that's part of what's happened is that he has modified his message - he's not made it so harsh and not just concentrated on immigration as an issue?

William Horsley:

That's very, very true. I think in the France of the last few years, the issues that Le Pen is concerned about have suddenly become really the main issues for the people. Now one reason is that the economy is doing rather well. Most people are in jobs but they are fearful of change. They're fearful of American globalisation on the one side. They're very fearful of immigration, particularly from North Africa which is growing. There are millions of people without papers or illegally in France as well as those that are here legally whose status is not very certain - all those issues are Le Pen issues. So he is presenting himself as the law and order man - not only that but as the anti-establishment man at a time when you have lacklustre leaders.

We've seen Lionel Jospin is rather a dull stick on the campaign trail and of Jacques Chirac is the man who is pilloried in the French television as "Supermenteur" - "Super-liar" because if he weren't in office - if he weren't head of state - he would be summoned by magistrates to answer allegations about corruption, kick-backs, black money flowing to his party coffers and used by him personally in career in the last 25 years. I think Mr Le Pen has profited from all of that and as you say, he has toned down the anti-immigrant language because he sensed that he might have this chance to enter the big game and he succeeded in an amazing way.


Rob Farnell, UK asks: The highest proportion to vote for Le Pen in the last election was the 18 - 35 year group. Does this mean that it's only a matter of time before we have a Right Wing government in charge of one of Europe's major powers as more and more young people are supporting people such as Le Pen?

William Horsley:

Well I don't think that follows actually. It may be true that he got quite a lot of support from young people this time but that I suspect is part of this situation that we were describing of a society that is fundamentally sound and the economy is growing. But those that feel left out, particularly in these suburbs where there's a lot of gang activity and youth unemployment - I think you'll find those are the areas - around Paris also out to the north west of Paris. You've seen in the map about 35 departments around France - that's a small proportion of the total - but they're nearly all around Paris to the north and east and then down the east side. Many of them are inner city suburbs around the big cities - also some in the rural areas and as your e-mailer has suggested that includes a very high proportion of young people in those deprived areas.


Julian in England text messages: I am puzzled by the term "abstention" in the French election. Does this refer simply to people that don't vote or to people who register at a "no preference" vote at the polling station?

William Horsley:

No it's just "no shows" - it's people who don't show up. They put it like that because in France up to now I gather they've had the third highest turnout regularly for presidential elections among the seven European countries that have direct presidential elections in all. So this time it was roughly 28% of people who didn't show up - so a 72% or so turnout and that's quite a lot less than last time and it's a record low.


Susan White, UK asks (and a similar point was made by William Power, UK): What are differences between the roles of the French Prime Minister and President?

William Horsley:

In a way they're the same because they're both governing. You've got to remember that the Fifth Republic, founded by De Gaulle in 1958 was tailor-made for him. So the presidency has an enormous amount of power and prestige. The power is mainly vested in international affairs. The President does actually have the power to order how France will vote in the Security Council, what its Middle East policy will be - he represents France. I've been at countless summit meetings - both European ones, G8 and also European Union summits and what you see is that the president is like the king - the king of the old days - and he takes the main seat and everybody talks to him and his voice counts and at the final press conference it's he that speaks. The Prime Minister is a bit of an afterthought but he's actually the man that has to do the job of governing.

So you ask what the difference is in their roles - I understand that in the regular cabinet meetings, the president is actually in the chair of the government meeting of cabinet ministers even though the prime minister is actually the chief minister of the cabinet and has to appoint and direct and sack any ministers who get out of line. So it's a very complicated and intricate process and I think it all comes to back to moment of its birth where De Gaulle designed a system that would give him power and prestige but not, as it were, all the troublesome business of actually running the government and that's where prime ministers who run for president don't have a terribly good record in France and perhaps it's for that reason. Jacques Chirac was mayor of Paris and De Gaulle was a wartime leader - roles with great prestige. The prime minister has to come from the hurly-burly of politics and he often gets mud stuck on him or he gets worn down - as appears to be the case with Lionel Jospin - so it's a bit of an unequal battle. It's worth pointing out that Le Pen of course is not tainted by that party politics - he's always been against the main parties. He's had a fairly strong showing in the European Parliament, so he's coming from a different direction from your standard politician.


Guy Rubin, UK: Commentators have placed much emphasis on portraying the results as a rejection of an ageing French political establishment that's out of touch with the electorate. What are the prospects of a socialist using the resignation of Mr Jospin to skip a generation and pick a young and more inclusive leader?

William Horsley:

I don't think anybody knows at the moment. It's true that Jospin is 64 but actually he's a relative newcomer to mainstream politics. He was a bit of a magic man - in the mid-90s, a bit like in Italy with Romano Prodi. Suddenly after the turmoil and so on of the fall of Communism - what would happen to the Left - up jumped these two men; Prodi in Italy and Jospin in France and they really saved the Left. Jospin now is very much the father-figure of the established traditional Left in Europe. I don't think that there is a very obvious successor - of course they have in the past had lively Left Wing people - Rocard was one, more than 10 years ago, who was prime minister from the Socialist side. But whether they'll skip a generation now - I don't think anybody has the faintest idea because nobody had expected this. Nobody had expected Jospin to step down overnight because of this disastrous election result.


Tim, Gloucester, UK: Whatever the outcome of the next stage of the presidential election, has the grand socialist EU project been dealt a severe or even fatal blow?

William Horsley:

Well you would think that the message of this would be quite clear that the EU has a lot of people who hate it. Even so you'd have to say that there's no evidence that it is about 1 in 5 maximum of the people of France who hate it - if indeed that is one of the reasons why they voted for Le Pen.

I think your e-mailer has a very good point about that because this may be one of the other unstated issues of the campaign because European Union affairs are a bit of a taboo in France. All the mainstream parties say they're in favour of a united Europe but for a special place for France in it. So it hasn't really been debated and it wasn't really debated since the Maastricht Treaty. Of course at the time of the Maastricht Treaty there was a referendum in France which was won by the narrowest of margins by the "Yes" side. Then there was no referendum or anything when the euro came in. So in a way the French have been sleepwalking a bit on the European question and things have gone against them in their dealings with Germany - their old rival. Germany is much more important now than it was - France is less important. The European Union expanding very soon to take in as many as 10 new countries - so France one country even with a large population among 20 or 25 counts for much less. I think that certainly is an important part of the feeling of insecurity in the election - so there is an anti-EU element.

On the other side I have to say the EU is quite used to taking blows like this - you have some peculiar regimes in many parts of Europe. A lot of people say that Mr Berlusconi's regime in Italy is not the kind of regime that the rest of the EU should be dealing with. You've had problems in Austria - you've now got Far Right Wing movements, quite strong in a number of other countries - the Netherlands, Denmark - quite a number of other European countries and yet the thing goes on I think because the mainstream parties in all those countries judge that on balance it's better to have this pooled sovereignty - it's better to have this common decision-making in most areas, even though a lot of the populations chafe in many countries, including Britain, including Denmark, including France.


Anna Navarro, Spain: Is it possible that Jean-Marie Le Pen will be the next president of France?

William Horsley:

I'd have to hedge my bets by saying there is really nobody I know and nobody who's spoken out who speaks with credibility - from the political sphere commentators or others - who believes that Le Pen can beat Chirac in the second round. So the answer would be no, he can't win in a run off against Jacques Chirac - he can take the votes from the other Right Wing candidates - particularly Bruno Megret - some from the Countryside Party, some from disaffected Communists and Socialists and others who want to say "two fingers", as it were, to the system. But in the end, I think the consensus is that he cannot win. If he were to do so, France would have had to have changed enormously and the evidence from today is that France hasn't changed that much.

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22 Apr 02 | Europe
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