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Demonstrations against Jean-Marie Le Pen intensify as the second round of voting in the French presidential election approaches. Most demonstrators are high school students, too young to have voted in the election last month. Now, say the excited broadcasters who count the numbers in every demonstration, the youngsters are undergoing their first civic experience. There's a dizzying sense of revolution in the air - France loves its revolutions.

The youth, say the columnists, are expressing their revulsion of the radical right. Celebrities and organizations declare on television how they will vote for Jacques Chirac "to block the extremists, racists and hatred." Artists volunteer performances, and call out "Vote Chirac." The more pragmatic cry "vote for the liar, not the fascist."

Even major industrialists have declared support for Chirac. Why not? Like Le Pen they also want the 35-hour week abolished. Bernard Kouchner, the media-savvy health minister in the outgoing socialist government said with no small measure of satisfaction that the people are disgusted by racism. Everyone has joined the movement against the extreme right-wing devil, who has sullied France in the eyes of the world.

From left and right they say "France is torn and disintegrating and its common republican denominator must be revived." Suddenly, everyone is united, singing an enlightened new song, about something that presumably was there all the time.

This united front, impressed by its own demonstrations, can be misleading. Like Israel after Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, it has turned fear of fragmentation into a fake glue amplifying the social, economic, and cultural gaps. It's dissolving the differences between right and left, and sharpening the alienation and isolation of large segments of the population from society and the state. In France the elites - especially the defeated left (which doesn't understand why it was defeated) - are hurrying to screw the lid on the pressure cooker and cool it down.

The excuses have a familiar ring - the media are to blame for sowing fear of crime, television interviewed Le Pen too much, thus legitimizing him. True, we were wrong, the education system rejected the Arabs' children but the educational reforms will fix all that. With no small degree of hysteria, the press is dealing with what it refers to as "the earthquake." They seem to be trying to absolve their guilt for the mistake they made in predicting the outcome of the vote.

Liberation for example is detailing in huge articles Le Pen's alleged political and financial corruption, reprinting his battered slogans, and trying to prove that the rude racist is also a cheat, even more extreme than he claims, self-contradictory, a coward rather than a war hero, and a person who invented a false autobiography.

Where were all these facts a year ago? One doesn't have to be a communications genius to understand these efforts are making Le Pen chortle. Bernard Kouchner, in a tempestuous debate on Antenne 2, called the demonstrators "a people who have risen up." Le Pen reponded to that in an interview with another broadcaster on another channel - Kouchner's wife.

"It's not the people, my dear lady," said Le Pen, "and it's not the democracy. These are the little spoiled children of the bourgeois who finally found something to shout about. The people are the workers and farmers who work hard and came to vote. Democracy spoke at the ballot box. The frightened left is trying to change the results in the street and in the papers." In other words, the left has forgotten it is French.

On May 6, France could find itself in the best of cases with a right wing president who will win a Bolshevik majority, and in the worst case, with a right wing president whose extremist challenger wins a sizable proportion of the vote. On June 16, those results will apparently be compounded by a socialist government that will live with Chirac and the right wing extremists in another paralyzed "cohabitation." Philosopher Alain Finkielkraut could become an empty alternative to the kind of profound introspection needed now in French society, particularly on the left.

But historian Bertrand Gallet asked: "What are these children going to rebel against? Their liberal parents?" Yet he also regarded the election results - the abstentions and the votes for the fringe parties - as indicators of something that needs looking into.

The French new left must start listening to other public voices, and the old left that revolted in 1968, played around with Trotskyism, founded newspapers and wormed its way into the political elite must make way for representatives of the new France, including the poor, the immigrants and others from the periphery. If they don't, the opportunity presented to France by Le Pen's horrifying advance will be missed.

In some French cities - like Montpellier - local politicians have learned to be flexible with the strict French constitution and made adaptations for the dramatic cultural and demographic changes that immigration has brought. France can do it - the question is, does it want to?