Left voters who put 'the crook' before 'the fascist'

 

FRANCE: Lara Marlowe, in Paris, spoke to three families, one Franco-Irish, one Jewish and one French-Tunisian, who are united by their opposition to Le Pen

The Franco-Irish Leonard family spent election day at a boot sale in eastern Paris. By 3 p.m., Agnès (45), had not yet voted. "She needs a push and a shove to get there," said Peter Leonard (44).

"I'm going. I'll go soon," Mrs Leonard answered sadly. "I'll go without a clothes peg, without rubber gloves, because otherwise they'll cancel my vote."

After the extreme right-wing National Front leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, qualified for yesterday's second round of the French election, millions of left-wing voters faced having to vote for President Jacques Chirac - the man they'd hoped to see tried on corruption charges - to save France from the racist and xenophobic Mr Le Pen.

"For two weeks, I've felt like I was in mourning," Mrs Leonard said. "Now we have to mobilise for the legislative elections [next month\]."

The Leonards are part of what the former socialist employment minister, Martine Aubry calls "the people of the left". Mr Leonard, originally from Clontarf, translates film sub-titles from French into English, and Mrs Leonard is a school teacher.

They say the experience of the past two weeks has changed their electoral behaviour forever. Peter Leonard will ask for French nationality now, and register to vote.

The Leonard's daughter Leah (15), has taken an interest in politics for the first time, marching with lycée students, then joining her parents and little brother Evan (8), in the 700,000 strong May Day demonstration in eastern Paris.

"She said, 'Mama, don't worry. People my age will never vote for these ideas again.' I said, 'My father said that too'." Leah Leonard also learned how bitter political debate in France is. She quarrelled with a male school friend whose parents voted for Le Pen, and they no longer speak to each other.

Agnès Leonard does not regret voting for the Green candidate Noel Mamère in the first round - "I have to assume responsibility," she says - but she will not make the same mistake in next month's poll for the National Assembly.

"I'll vote for the strongest left-wing candidate in the first round, without voting for the Greens first." If the centre-right and left fragment and put forward too many candidates - as they did in the first round of the presidential poll - the National Front will win more seats in the June 9th and 16th legislative elections.

The magnitude of the May Day marches against Le Pen lifted the morale of the left slightly, but despite their bravado about how they've "done all the work" to defeat Mr Le Pen, left-wing voters fear two things: that the socialist party leader Francois Hollande - once described by Mr Chirac as "Mitterrand's labrador" - will not be able to reunite the left quickly, and that Mr Chirac will take an immediate sharp turn to the right on security and immigration, in the hope of wooing National Front voters in next month's poll.

Distrust of Mr Chirac led many left-wing voters to abstain yesterday. At a newspaper kiosk in central Paris, Nourredine, a Tunisian who is now a French citizen, responded angrily to a customer who urged him to vote for Mr Chirac.

"I remember his government's policies - the Pasqua and Debré laws (on limiting immigration), the Église St Bernard (where riot police used tear gas to break up a sit-in by immigrants). . . I refuse to be railroaded into voting for someone I've always hated, just because Le Pen is a candidate. I want Chirac to win by as little as possible; if I vote for him, it will hurt me in the long run."

Delphine Roy (23), and her boyfriend Sébastien Llamas (24), are, like the Leonards, reluctant Chirac supporters.

"It hurts but I have to do it," Ms Roy, a law student said. She and Mr Llamas are Jewish, and they interpret the rise in attacks on Jews in France and Mr Le Pen's candidacy as signs of latent French anti-Semitism.

The attacks have been carried out by north African Arabs angered by Ariel Sharon's assault on the West Bank.

"If Le Pen won, I'd pack my bags and go to Canada or the US - some place where Jews are still welcome," Ms Roy said. "I used to feel so French . . ." she muses sadly. She is pessimistic.

"I hear a lot of people saying they'll abstain, that they don't want to chose between 'the crook and the fascist'. I won't feel relieved until I know for sure that Chirac has won."

Like Ms Roy, Mr Llamas, a business student, feared Le Pen might receive up to 40 per cent of the vote yesterday.

"It would mean 20 per cent of the French are fascists, and 20 per cent just can't stand it anymore," he said.

"We live in nice neighbourhoods - not dangerous banlieues. I understand their distress, but voting for Le Pen is not a solution."