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By Jacques Attali

Jacques Attali was the late French president Francois Mitterrand's chief aide and is the author of ''Millennium: Winners and Losers in the Coming World Order'' (Times Books, 1998), as well as many other books.

-- France has just given the world one of the worst possible images of itself. All its friends are taken aback. In this first round of the presidential elections, France appears to refuse all modern thinking and to fear everything foreign (globalization, the United States, Europe, Jews and Arabs) in an effort to protect itself against anything that could endanger its lost identity.

In fact, there are good reasons to be concerned: The extreme right, as well as the extreme left, represents more than one-third of the electorate; both appear to unite for the run-off elections and may well endanger democracy.

Racial incidents have also been on the rise in the past several months.

The French must, however, not give in to irrationalism. I for one am convinced that this regrettable episode will lead to a spectacular rebirth of democracy in France, just as we have seen in Austria and Italy. First and foremost because, in spite of the incidents and the election results, France is neither racist nor anti-Semitic. France remains, as always, a land of hospitality.

Furthermore, Jean-Marie Le Pen obtained barely a few more votes this time than he did in all other recent elections. Voters who would have been expected to vote for the other candidates simply abstained. They underestimated the danger, which was not even hinted at by pollsters, and decided to wait until the second round to vote.

Lionel Jospin's supporters, in particular, thought that his victory was so unquestionable and irresistible that they did not vote. Jacques Chirac's voters did not go to the polling stations either and waited for the run-off election. Two million voters went missing on the left, and 3 million on the right, whereas those voting for the extreme right and the extreme left were all accounted for.

Just as in Italy and in Austria, the resurgence of the extremist movements will lead to a rebirth of the democratic movement. We can already see some strong reactions manifesting themselves against this ''bad joke.'' The 11 million non-voters will wake up and will no longer allow others to act on their behalf. All 40 million voters will no longer leave it up to the opinion polls to define the likely outcome of the elections, and will no longer adjust their votes as a result of uncertain forecasts.

We will see increasing participation of all voters in the political process. The younger people in particular will understand that politics is not something unimportant that only old folks deal with. The political parties, both on the right and on the left, will understand that they can no longer afford to remain organizations of dignitaries, but that they must have activists who have direct contact with grass-roots citizens, and who provide them with much-needed services.

This warning shot will be most useful. We are all reminded of a very useful lesson: Nobody -- not even a country like France that stands for human rights -- is shielded from the monster of intolerance.

(c) 2002, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services
For immediate release (Distributed 4/26/02)