PARIS – French politicians were rushing to endorse presidential incumbent Jacques Chirac Monday after an election storm swept the nation Sunday as voters handed extreme right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen a second-place finish.
Chirac and Le Pen will go to the polls for a runoff vote May 5. In the meantime, political leaders are scrambling to throw their weight behind the conservative Chirac. Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who came in third, tearfully announced his retirement from politics following the vote.
Le Pen, 73, leader of the anti-immigration National Front, called his score a step in "the French renaissance," to be completed with a May 5 victory.
On Monday, a few defeated candidates asked backers to transfer their support to Chirac — a request that, for some, would once have been unimaginable.
"We're facing a choice that could be considered impossible," Green Party candidate Noel Mamere told supporters. "To block the extreme right, we must resolve to vote Chirac in the second round."
"We have a responsibility to society, I'm ready to admit that clearly to you," Mamere said.
Jean-Pierre Chevenement, a former Socialist known for supporting traditional values, said "France should not be abandoned" to Le Pen's party. Francois Bayrou, a conservative rival of Chirac's, even met with Chirac to talk strategy.
The voting shook the political establishment and sent protesters into the streets. Jospin called Le Pen's success a "thunderbolt" and a "very disturbing sign for France and for our democracy."
Spontaneous demonstrations broke out in cities across France after Sunday's surprise. About 10,000 people protested in Paris alone, with some waving signs that read "I'm ashamed to be French." Police lobbed tear gas to break up several smaller protests.
In several cities, including Lyon, Strasbourg and Toulouse, high schoolers and young people took to the streets again on Monday. A Marseille demonstration drew 2,000 people.
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 19.65 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.
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 he would reach the final round in the contest for the country's top office.
He was to hold a news conference later Monday, but earlier 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."
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. Vaillant denounced what he called fear tactics over crime 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.
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 refers to himself as a simple patriot.
Le Pen had only narrowly qualified for the presidential race, scrambling for the 500 endorsements from elected officials needed to run.
Shock was reflected in French newspapers Monday, with the leftist Liberation newspaper's front page showing a photo of Le Pen with an enormous one-word headline: "No." Conservative Le Figaro's headline read, "The earthquake." Le Parisien's headline was: "The Shock."
European newspapers put out similar front-page headlines. Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet called the election "an insult to democracy," while a headline in Rome daily La Repubblica read, "France, Earthquake Le Pen."
Jospin did not endorse Chirac. However, many political heavyweights close to him, including his former finance minister, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, voiced support for the incumbent conservative.
"Jean-Marie Le Pen represents everything I hate, and so I have no hesitation in saying: I will vote for Jacques Chirac," Strauss-Kahn told France-Inter radio.
Several polls conducted as results came in showed that Chirac should win by a wide margin on May 5. But on Sunday, champagne bottles remained 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.
"France needs you, and I need you."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.