European Elections: French reject Gaullists and go for Greens

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PRESIDENT Chirac's Gaullists were the big losers across the Channel. French voters turned out in record low numbers and punished most main parties - except Lionel Jospin's Socialists - leaving French politics more fragmented than ever.

The predicted Gaullist score of about 13.3 per cent was the worst figure recorded by Mr Chirac's party in a nationwide vote. The principal victor was a breakaway Eurosceptic party, led by the former Gaullist interior minister, Charles Pasqua, which looked likely to score about 13 per cent of the vote, almost as much as the Gaullists and their liberal allies.

The other great success - paradoxically - was the most passionately pro- European of all French parties, the Greens, led by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the May 1968 student leader, making his political comeback. After a stridently pro-federalist campaign, the Greens looked likely to record their highest score in a French election, at about 9.5 per cent.

More significantly, the Greens outpolled the Communists for the first time, suggesting an historic shift of power on the French left. The Socialist Party of the Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, scored a satisfactory but unspectacular 23 per cent - enough to cement its position as the main force in the pink-green-red coalition governing France.

In the vicious "fascist primary" on the recently divided far right, Jean-Marie Le Pen and the National Front looked likely to score no more than 6 per cent, its worst score for 15 years. Mr Le Pen's former lieutenant and bitter rival, Bruno Megret, seemed as if he would confound the opinion polls by scoring about 4 per cent, but this was not enough to give him a couple of seats in Strasbourg.

Perhaps the most significant - and miserable - figure of the night was the turn-out of 45 per cent, comfortably the lowest recorded in any nationwide vote in France. After a vigorous start, the campaign was overshadowed by the Kosovo war and bogged down in name- calling and point-scoring.

As a struggle between left and right, the battlefield was too confused and scattered to yield much in the way of a forecast for the next presidential elections in 2002. But the vote suggests the personal popularity of President Chirac may not be enough to rescue the neo-Gaullist party that he founded 20 years ago. The miserable Gaullist score will lead to more blood-letting on the centre-right - and possibly the collapse of the Gaullists as a serious force in French politics.