PARIS – The leader of France's resurgent extreme right called on mainstream voters to join him as he faces incumbent Jacques Chirac for the presidency, following a stunning finish in a first round of voting that shook the political establishment and sent protesters into the streets.
Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, disqualified after placing third in Sunday's first-round vote, called the performance of Jean-Marie Le Pen a "thunderbolt," and announced his retirement from politics.
Le Pen's second-place showing is a "very disturbing sign for France and for our democracy," Jospin said, choking back emotion.
Le Pen, 73, leader of the anti-immigration National Front, called his score a step in "the French renaissance," to be completed with a second-round victory on May 5.
Eyeing the runoff, the National Front leader made a broad appeal to the French, "whatever their race, their religion or their social condition, to rally to this historic chance for national recovery."
The silver-haired Le Pen, a former paratrooper now in his fourth presidential race, has been a fixture in French politics for decades. But few could imagine that he would reach the final round in the contest for the country's top office.
Scores of polls leading up to the vote consistently showed the conservative Chirac, 69, and the Socialist Jospin, 64, taking the top two slots. Only recently did Le Pen even solidly emerge as the so-called third man, the kingmaker.
With more than 99 percent of the vote counted, Chirac had 19.7 percent, Le Pen 17.06 percent and Jospin 16.05 percent, according to the Interior Ministry.
The three men were among a record field of 16 candidates. The abstention rate of some 28 percent also was a record, Interior Minister Daniel Vaillant said. Both were likely contributing factors to Le Pen's success.
Voter apathy and the fragmented field punished Jospin and rewarded Le Pen, boosting him beyond the 15 percent that he and his party traditionally score in national elections.
Rising crime and the central role it took in the campaign appeared to be another factor in Le Pen's success.
Chirac put public insecurity at the top of his campaign platform. At a campaign meeting, he referred to the massacre in late March of eight suburban city council members by a deranged gunman as an example of the left's failure to address rising crime.
Vaillant, commenting on the election result, denounced what he called fear tactics — without mentioning Chirac — that played into the hands of Le Pen, whose party blames urban violence on immigrants.
Le Pen has long been accused of racism and anti-Semitism. He is notorious for having called Nazi gas chambers "a detail" of history in 1987 — a remark for which he was fined in court, one of several convictions. Le Pen denies he is anti-Semitic.
An estimated 10,000 people gathered in Paris early Monday morning to protest Le Pen's showing to cries of "We are all the children of immigrants" or "Down with the National Front."
Violence tinged the peaceful protest as a few thousand broke away, apparently marching toward the presidential Elysee Palace, and confronted riot police lobbing tear gas at the Place de la Concorde. The huge window of the famed restaurant Maxim's was smashed. Several hundred protesters then rampaged on a Left Bank boulevard, smashing some bus stops and shop windows. Police arrested several dozen people.
Demonstrators gathered in other cities, from Marseille in the south, to Lille in the north, to Strasbourg in the east.
Le Pen, who founded the National Front in 1972 and uses "French first" as his slogan, has struck a chord among voters who fear that the French identity is being sacrificed to immigration, particularly Muslims from Africa. He blames immigrants for urban violence and unemployment, and refers to himself as a simple patriot.
Champagne bottles stayed corked at Chirac's campaign headquarters as a somber president called for national unity.
"I call on all French men and women to gather to defend human rights," Chirac said in a brief speech. "At risk is our national cohesion, the values of the Republic.
"France needs you, and I need you."
Defeated candidates, one after another, put out calls for followers to vote for Chirac in the second round to stop Le Pen. "France must not be abandoned to the National Front," said candidate Jean-Pierre Chevenement, who once served as interior and defense minister.
Several polls conducted as results came in showed that Chirac would win by a wide margin on May 5.
Le Pen had only narrowly qualified for the presidential race, scrambling for the 500 endorsements from elected officials needed to run. His party all but imploded in 1998 when top lieutenant Bruno Megret left in a nasty public quarrel and formed his own movement.
Megret, too, was a presidential candidate Sunday, getting nearly 2.4 percent of the vote. Together with Le Pen, that meant that the extreme right garnered almost as many votes as Chirac.
Calling the results a "veritable cataclysm," Finance Minister Laurent Fabius, a Socialist, said Le Pen's path must be blocked in the second round.
"I think that tonight there are lots of people crying," he said. "This is not the France that we love."