Le Pen Joins Volatile Race For French Presidency

By John Ward Anderson and Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 15, 2007

PARIS, March 14 -- Jean-Marie Le Pen, the anti-immigration politician who stunned France and the world by finishing second in this country's 2002 presidential contest, formally placed his name on this year's ballot Wednesday, adding new uncertainty to an increasingly volatile campaign.

Barely six weeks from the April 22 vote, the French election has become close and unpredictable. The two longtime front-runners -- Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, candidate of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement party, and Socialist Party nominee Ségolène Royal, who is vying to become the first female president of France -- are facing a challenge from the surging campaign of François Bayrou of the Union for French Democracy.

Polls indicate Bayrou is sapping support from both Sarkozy and Royal and has transformed the election into a three-way contest. In a survey published Sunday by the weekly newspaper Journal du Dimanche, Sarkozy was favored by 28 percent of the respondents, Royal and Bayrou by 23 percent each, and Le Pen by 13 percent.

Daily tracking polls by other organizations this week show similar percentages. Those numbers, however, reflect voters who have made up their minds, and polls indicate that as many as 40 percent of potential voters have not.

The two candidates with the highest percentage of votes on April 22 will compete in a May 6 runoff for the presidency.

While most pollsters and political analysts say they don't expect the 78-year-old Le Pen to win a runoff position this year, they suggest that his candidacy will have a major impact on the race's outcome because he will likely lure voters away from Sarkozy.

"Normally Le Pen improves in the last two weeks of the campaign," said Pierre Giacometti, head of Ipsos polling company, noting that Le Pen almost doubled his support in the final months of the 2002 campaign, going from 9 to 17 percent. If that happens again, he said, "it's clear that would be very bad for Sarkozy."

When Le Pen arrived at the Constitutional Council on Wednesday to submit his required documents with the endorsement signatures of at least 500 public officials, he was greeted by supporters shouting, "Vive Le Pen!" and opponents who booed, whistled and screamed, "Le Pen Nazi!"

"We've gone through the hardest part," Le Pen said. "Getting the 500 signatures was very tough."

The complete presidential field, which could total a dozen or more candidates, is scheduled to be formally announced on Monday.

The volatility of the French campaign in its final weeks is a reflection of increasing voter frustration with the two candidates who have been leading the race for months -- Sarkozy, 52, and Royal, 53. Pollsters and political analysts say many voters are afraid of Sarkozy and his tough stands on such issues as immigration and law and order, and are concerned about gaffes by Royal suggesting she may not be up to the job of president.

Bayrou, 55, has in the past worked with the country's ruling bloc, inheritor of the nationalist mantle of Charles de Gaulle. Bayrou made a previous run for the presidency and is now attempting to capitalize on the disillusionment with the candidates offered by the two largest parties.

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