An unexpected surge by the extreme right in the presidential election has shocked mainstream parties and set off a wave of heart-searching over why France is out of step with the rest of Europe.
National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has campaigned to expel immigrants from France, took the political establishment by storm by picking up over 14 percent of the popular vote in the first ballot."An earthquake has shaken the political landscape," he told cheering supporters.
"I am worried. This vote reflects a mixture of fear, passion and a desire to exclude," said center-right Culture Minister Francois Leotard. "But no one can believe that 15 percent of France is fascist. That is simply not true."
Le Pen's score was not enough to take him into the second round runoff on May 8 to be fought between socialist President Francois Mitterrand and conservative Prime Minister Jacques Chirac.
But pollsters believe it puts him in a position to put pressure on the ruling center-right coalition to come to a deal with the
blond former paratrooper if Chirac is to have any chance of unseating Mitterrand.
Le Pen, who picked up only 0.7 percent of the popular vote when he last stood for the presidency in 1974 and 10 percent in the 1986 parliamentary elections, said:
"From now on, nothing can be done without the National Front nor against its wishes."
In a triumphant mood at his mansion in the Paris suburb of Saint Cloud, he rounded on pollsters, who failed to predict the extent of Le Pen's surge, accusing them of a dis-information campaign.
Jerome Jaffre, chief pollster with the SOFRES opinion research organization, said France was the only country in Western Europe where the extreme right was growing year by year.