The 2002 French presidential election consisted of a first round election on 21 April 2002, and a runoff election between the top two candidates (Jacques Chirac and Jean-Marie Le Pen) on 5 May 2002. This presidential contest attracted a greater than usual amount of international attention because of far-right candidate Le Pen's unexpected victory over Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin and subsequent appearance in the runoff election. Journalists and politicians then claimed that polls had failed to predict his second place finish in the general election, though Le Pen's strong stance could be seen in the week prior to the election. This led to serious discussions about polling techniques and the climate of French politics. Although Le Pen's political party National Front described itself as mainstream conservative, non-partisan observers largely agreed in defining it as a far right or ultra-nationalist party.
Results of the first round: the candidate with the plurality of votes in each administrative division. Jacques Chirac: blue; Jean-Marie Le Pen: dark blue; Lionel Jospin: pink
The 2002 election was the first for which the President would be elected to a five year, instead of a seven year, term.
In the months before the election, the campaign had increasingly focused on questions of law and order, with a particular focus on crimes committed by young people, especially those of foreign origin. Lionel Jospin was, at the time, Prime Minister of France; the Jospin government was criticised for its "softness" on crime by its political opponents. Alarmist reporting on the TF1 and France2 television channel and other media also overemphasised the alleged crime wave.
The first round of the election (on 21 April), which saw an exceptional number of 16 candidates, came as a shock to many commentators, almost all of whom had expected the second ballot to be between Jacques Chirac and Lionel Jospin. Indeed, it was this very expectation that led to Jospin's downfall, with a plethora of "small party" left candidates (independent socialists and republicans, Green, Communist, Trotskyist, radical etc.) all intending to support him in the second round, but to raise their profile in the first, like Jean-Pierre Chevènement and Christiane Taubira. They cumulatively took enough votes away from Jospin to (unintentionally) prevent him from reaching the second round, which he would quite probably have won. Instead Jean-Marie Le Pen faced Chirac in the second ballot. The election brought the opinion polls and two-round voting system into question as well as raising many concerns about apathy and the way in which the left had become so divided as a a result of the over democratical refusal of Jospin to strategically ask the nearest small parties of his own government coalition to withdraw, like the preceding leaders of the left had done for such an election.
There was a widespread stirring of national public opinion, and more than one million people in France took part in street rallies, in an expression of fierce opposition to Le Pen's ideas. Some held up protest signs stating "I'm ashamed to be French," which parodied Le Pen's party slogan, "Proud to be French." Spontaneous street protests began in the night from 21 April to 22 April, then on 22 April and 23, then as follows:
24 April: 60,000 people in the streets protesting against Le Pen's success
25 April: 250,000 people in the streets protesting against Le Pen's success
27 April: 200,000 people in the streets protesting against Le Pen's success (including 45,000 in Paris)
Approximately 20,000 people turned out for the National Front's yearly demonstration in Paris in honor of Joan of Arc and in support of Le Pen.
Between 900,000 (according to the Ministry of the Interior) and 1,300,000 people (according to syndicates) turned up to the Labor Day demonstrations and against the National Front. Hundreds of thousands of people who normally did not take part in such demonstrations came, in addition to the usual unions. In Paris, 500,000 people were seen in the streets, one of the greatest protest since the Liberation of Paris; the march was so big it had to be divided in three parts to reach the place de la Bastille. In another unusual sight for 1 May demonstrations, French tricolour flags were commonplace.
The choice between Chirac, who was under suspicion for actions carried out whilst he was mayor of Paris (see corruption scandals in the Paris region) but benefited from Presidential immunity as long as he stayed president, and Le Pen, a nationalist often accused of racism and antisemitism, was one that many found tough. Some people suggested going to vote with a clothes peg on their noses to express disgust when voting for Chirac, but this may have been illegal, because it is prohibited to advertise one's vote inside the voting precinct. In the days before the second ballot, a memorable poster was put up of Chirac with the slogan "Vote for the Crook, not the Fascist". Chirac defeated Le Pen by a landslide.
A response to the first round of elections, this spray-painted sign was seen on the streets of Paris. Translation: "APRIL 21: I FEEL SICK".
The 1 May 2002 Labour Day demonstrations for workers' rights included protests against Jean-Marie Le Pen.