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France: Chirac's Victory Hailed As 'Victory For Democracy'

  • Joel Blocker

French voters yesterday re-elected conservative President Jacques Chirac with an unprecedented 82 percent of the ballots cast, while handing his far-right opponent Jean-Marie Le Pen only 18 percent in the runoff vote. Both inside and outside France, the result is being seen as a reaffirmation of French democratic values, called into question two weeks ago when Le Pen unexpectedly came in second to Chirac. RFE/RL's Paris correspondent Joel Blocker sums up the analyses of yesterday's vote and looks forward to its likely impact on French political life.

Paris, 6 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- For the second time in a fortnight, French voters defied the predictions of analysts and sparked unusually strong international comment about their choices at the ballot box.

On 21 April, the French electorate dismissed outgoing Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's bid for the presidency by choosing far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen to face conservative Jacques Chirac in the runoff vote.

That was the first time that the National Front Party leader, running on an anti-immigration and "France First" platform, had made it to the second round, and constituted Le Pen's greatest personal achievement in his four candidacies for president. The result surprised French pollsters and analysts alike, and dismayed many in France and abroad.

In yesterday's runoff, the electorate came up with another big surprise. Despite some pollsters' predictions that Le Pen might win as much as one-third of the vote, he ended up with less than one-fifth, with only 18 percent of the ballots cast, as opposed to Chirac's 82 percent. Nonetheless, some 5.5 million French voted for Le Pen -- in a country whose total population is about 61 million.

The result was hailed by virtually all non-National Front leaders -- and one stubborn Trotskyite candidate -- as a victory for democratic values in France. It provided necessary relief after two weeks in which much of the country spoke openly of its great "shame" and "dishonor."

Abroad, too, Chirac's overwhelming victory was greeted with enthusiasm and relief. British Prime Minister Tony Blair called it "a victory for democracy and a defeat for extremism and the repellent policies Le Pen represents."

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder struck the same note in a message of congratulations to Chirac, writing: "The French people have rejected extremism without ambiguity."

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer also praised the election results: "I would like to express our joy about the French election result. The French Republic has clearly denounced xenophobia and right-wing extremism. I believe this is important for Europe and goes far beyond the French borders."

In Brussels, European Commission President Romano Prodi expressed satisfaction that what he called the "isolationist policies" of Le Pen had been crushed. In Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell said he was pleased that Le Pen was "overwhelmingly marginalized and defeated by Mr. Chirac."

During the runoff campaign, Le Pen said that any result less than 30 percent for him would be a defeat, and in his first reaction last night he was quick to blame it on France's establishment:

"[It was] an hysterical campaign, orchestrated by the doings of those in power -- politicians, financiers, media people -- all co-responsible for the grave situation in our country, all united in the defense of their privileges. [But] the result of the first round, a true earthquake, was in itself a great victory."

Most analysts, however, attributed Chirac's extraordinary result in the second round -- the largest winning margin ever -- to a lesser rate of abstention than in the first round and to a mobilization of France's left vote, whose fractionalizing on 21 April led to Jospin's defeat.

Throughout the two weeks between the first round and the runoff, daily street demonstrations across France -- led by young people from 15 to 25 years old -- called for "blocking" Le Pen's bid for the presidency. Socialist and most extreme-left leaders called on their followers to do the same, although some of them, including Jospin, found it hard to mention Chirac by name.

Last night, Socialist leaders like party Secretary-General Francois Hollande and outgoing Finance Minister Laurent Fabius insisted that the vote for Chirac represents less the result of a personal "plebiscite" than a massive "defense of republican values." They predicted the legislative elections due next month (9 and 16 June) will provide an opportunity for the left again to retain control of the National Assembly, signaling the naming of a new leftist prime minister and a new period of so-called "cohabitation."

But Chirac himself seemed pleased to cloak himself in the republican mantle. Speaking to his supporters last night in Paris's Place de la Republique -- the site was no accident -- Chirac said:

"My dear friends! (Applause.) Tonight we are celebrating the republic. We are celebrating it as any other time in history when it has brought us a great victory."

Chirac went on in the same vein:

"To the trust you have shown in me, I will respond with my involvement in action with determination. The president of all the French people, I will answer with the spirit of unity. I am going to put the republic to the service of all the people. I want the values of liberty, equality, and fraternity to recover their place in the lives of each and every one of you."

No doubt in part to show he intends to serve "all the people," Chirac today named Jean-Pierre Raffarin as prime minister and charged him with forming a new government. The appointment came less than 90 minutes after Jospin had formally resigned.

Raffarin is a relatively unknown provincial senator from the southwestern French region of Poitou-Charente, where he is also regional president. He is a member of the centrist Liberal Democratic Party who rallied to Chirac in the mid-1990s, but has never been a member of Chirac's neo-Gaullist Rally for the Republic Party (RPR).

On 2 May, as several commentators recalled today, Chirac had made it clear that the highly publicized personal ambitions of RPR leaders would play no role in his choice of a new prime minister and government. Interviewed on French television (TF1), Chirac said: "What I want is a team that is cohesive, competent, and without any petty political or personal preoccupations. Today, [the era of] personal careers is over."

How long Raffarin's government will remain in office depends on the results of the 9 and 16 June legislative elections. Few analysts are willing for the moment to predict their outcomes. But some point out that -- despite Le Pen's defeat yesterday -- the National Front is likely to play an important and perhaps decisive role in the vote for a new National Assembly, as it did in 1997.

In an interview in today's "Le Monde," political scientist Francois Miquet-Marty says flatly that "nothing indicates that the halt of [Le Pen yesterday] will be definitive." He and other analysts point out that Le Pen has said the National Front will present candidates in all of the legislature's 533 constituencies. Several believe the extreme right will gain some 10 seats in an assembly where today it has none.

More important, perhaps, will be the role of the National Front in deciding runoff votes in the second round of the legislative elections. Under current French law, any candidate winning more than 12 percent of the vote in the first round can go forward to the runoff. That will allow the National Front to deal with the left or the right and decide many of what the French call "triangular" runoffs. The extreme right did the same in 1997, tipping the National Assembly to the left.

Why? Because, analysts say, whatever Le Pen's hostility toward the left, his mortal enemy -- his "bete noire" -- has always been Chirac.