French reject Le Pen, far right

Chirac retains presidency with 82 percent of vote

May 06, 2002|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PARIS - French President Jacques Chirac was re-elected in a landslide last night as France ended its flirtation with the ultra-conservative right and rejected the anti-immigrant firebrand Jean-Marie Le Pen.

The move to the center occurred after two weeks of national soul-searching and international humiliation that followed last month's first round of presidential voting, when Le Pen was elevated from the political fringe and scored a second-place finish that shocked the nation.

Chirac garnered about 82 percent of the vote to Le Pen's 18 percent, with all of the national vote counted and an estimated voter turnout of 80 percent. It was the largest margin since the Fifth Republic was founded 44 years ago.

"We have gone through a time of serious anxiety for the country," Chirac said in a speech to party loyalists as he laid claim to the five-year presidential term. "But tonight, France has reaffirmed its attachment to the values of the Republic."

The outcome wasn't so much a coronation for the conservative Chirac as it was a repudiation of Le Pen, 73, who once called the Nazi death chambers a "detail" of World War II history.

From elegant Parisian neighborhoods to the rolling rural heartland, France found itself standing united across many social and political classes. The beneficiary of that unity was Chirac, 69, a political survivor who heads the center-right Rally for the Republic party.

Chirac even claimed the endorsement of the French left, bitterly divided and broken after Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin finished a surprising third in the first round of presidential voting.

Chirac, who has been hounded by allegations of corruption stemming from his long reign as Paris mayor, seemed to acknowledge that his enormous margin of victory was mainly due to a public groundswell to turn back the Le Pen advance.

He said the voters' decision went "beyond the traditional divisions and for some of you going beyond even your personal or political preferences."

Le Pen, who heads the National Front, called the result "a crushing defeat for French hope" and predicted Chirac's broad base of support will collapse.

"I won't have to wait long to see the allies of this morbid coalition tear each other apart," Le Pen said.

Carl Lange, the general-secretary of the National Front, asserted in a television interview that voters were brainwashed in a manner "worthy of the re-education camps of Pol Pot," the Cambodian Khmer Rouge leader who presided over the deaths of a quarter of his country's population.

The numbers, however, made it clear that the French had had quite enough of Le Pen, a charismatic speaker and brawling personality who has been on the political stage for decades.

Le Pen, who is accused of being racist as well as anti-Semitic, draws support from some members of the working class and unemployed, particularly in the south and on the country's eastern border with Germany and Switzerland. He couldn't build upon the support that he gathered in the first round of voting.

"This is clearly a repudiation of Le Pen," said Bruno Jeanbart, of the CSA polling firm.

Jeanbart added that beyond 18 percent of the electorate, there was a firewall blocking further support for Le Pen. But he said the ultra-conservative right would not go away, either.

"Even in the past when there has been a violent reaction to the far right it has continued to exist," he said.

France still faces two more rounds of parliamentary elections next month to select its National Assembly. The elections could once again prove pivotal for the nation, which has been in gridlock for five years with a government of so-called "co-habitation," made up of a center-right president and a Socialist-led National Assembly.

Surveys indicate the voters are poised to give the center-right a ruling majority in parliament. Chirac said he would appoint a transitional government to tide the country over before parliamentary elections.

Chirac seemed to revel in his role as a symbol of unity when he spoke to a boisterous crowd assembled in a light rain in the Place de la Republique. Chirac vowed to bring together the country and tackle France's most vexing issue - law and order.

"France has refused to give in to the temptation of a lack of tolerance and demagoguery," he said.

"What actually unifies the French is far more powerful than what can divide them," Chirac added. "We're strong thanks to our unity. We must make sure that France develops. We have to make sure France follows a new path of youth, growth, employment."

"Long live the Republic," he shouted, "and hooray for France."

Crime, what the French call insecurity, has rattled the voters, particularly in the drab suburbs where a volatile cocktail has been created through poor housing, high unemployment and immigration.

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