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NEW YORK — On May 5, I voted for a rightwinger. It was my first time, and with any luck it will be my last. I really didn’t have much choice. Born in the United States of a French parent, I enjoy dual nationality — a status that Jean-Marie Le Pen had promised to eliminate had his National Front seized the presidency of France. I disagree with French President Jacques Chirac on just about everything, but I voted for him anyway. It was merely a protest vote.

Under normal circumstances, the greatest advantage of European-style parliamentary democracy over our American two-party system is that it offers voters a wide choice of platforms to choose from. Political parties whose ideologies range from hardline communist to neofascist with every conceivable shade in between fragment the electorate on election day. But it coalesces days later as party officials horse-trade to form voting blocs. Occasionally a small party becomes crucial to the creation of a political alliance, offering that party’s supporters a chance to see some of their ideas become law. Voting in American presidential races is often a matter of choosing “the lessers of two evils.” Europeans get to vote for candidates they genuinely agree with. That’s why 90 percent voter participation is common there and unheard of here.

In America, “minority” opinions — those held by less than 49.9 percent of the electorate — are generally dismissed as the rantings of fringe lunatics. But truly insane opinions become law nonetheless — when they’re espoused by a tiny minority of rich and well-connected people. Our single-minded obsession with majority rule is so extreme that on many important issues, Democrats and Republicans offer identical platforms. On the other hand, the American system offers the relative advantage of political stability — even if that stability comes at the cost of alienation, boredom and stagnation.

American pundits were quick to deride Le Pen’s surprise second-place finish as a uniquely French manifestation of renewed anti-Semitism and, as a New York Times editorial put it, the country’s “unimaginative political establishment.” But those who backed Le Pen weren’t just casting protest votes.

In fact, what occurred in France could easily happen here.

French presidential elections feature two rounds of voting two weeks apart; the first- and second-place winners of the first round face off in the second. This quirk transforms a European parliamentary system into a U.S.-style winner-take-all two-man race. Polls had predicted that Le Pen would receive 13 percent of the votes cast in round one. However, he did four points better than expected. That tiny boost up to 17 percent was enough to topple Socialist candidate Prime Minister Lionel Jospin (who pulled just 16 percent) from second into third — and political oblivion.

Le Pen’s first-round performance hardly reflected a wholesale ideological shift to the right. To the contrary, it came as the result of Jospin’s Clinton/Gore-like shift to the center. Like American Democrats in 2000, socialist voters stayed home or opted to vote for the third-party weirdo, Le Pen.

The great underreported aspect of this mess was Le Pen’s second-round performance. After two weeks under the glare of international attention, in which every other mainstream political party endorsed Chirac and frazzled French voters were told that a vote for Le Pen was antidemocratic and unpatriotic, Le Pen nonetheless increased his support to a frightening 18 percent. This came despite high voter turnout among Le Pen opponents’ supporters. And it took a lot of nerve to vote for Le Pen on May 5; under such hostile conditions and pressure to “support democracy” it’s reasonable to assume that many who were somewhat sympathetic to Le Pen were convinced to stay with Chirac.

Outside France, Le Pen is rightfully infamous for his outrageous statements belittling the scale and importance of the Holocaust and urging mass deportations of immigrants. In France, he is best known for his claim that he says aloud what ordinary people are thinking but don’t dare articulate. Ideological vacuums create opportunities, both for saints and for xenophobic neo-Vichyites like Le Pen.

Many of those who voted for Le Pen say that they did so because he was the only candidate who addressed their concerns about jobs, globalization and rising crime. “Ordinary citizens, the alienated and excluded, young people, victims of the system, you whose voices are ignored, don’t be afraid to dream,” Le Pen’s second-round campaign leaflet urged.

His defeat is no definitive cause for celebration here, for the ideological territory he staked out (“socially liberal, economically conservative and, more than ever, France first!”) is wide open to any American demagogue who gets there first.

Le Pen got as far as he did by promising to pull France out of the European Union and make fiscal discipline and job creation his top priorities. The parallel issues are potent here in the United States. Both European and North American leaders imposed their free-trade agreements from above, without a vote. NAFTA has cost hundreds of thousands of Americans their jobs. And millions more are suffering from falling real wages.

Neither party mentions, much less does anything about, the continuing recession. Both are firmly beholden to corrupt corporations like Enron, which leads them to tolerate polluting national parks to drill oil, treating workers like dirt and absurd gambits like privatizing Social Security. And both parties voted to trash the budget surplus with Bush’s tragically wasteful tax cut for the super rich.

Only half of all Americans eligible to vote bother to even register, and only half of those show up at the polls. Pundits blame apathy, but the actual reason is that neither party addresses the needs and concerns of three-quarters of the population. Most of these disenfranchised voters are ordinary citizens, yet nobody speaks for them. Someday, with luck, that will change.

With real luck, that person won’t be a fascist like Le Pen.

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