Chirac defeats Le Pen in landslide

Monday, May 6, 2002

PARIS -- President Jacques Chirac was re-elected Sunday in a landslide victory over extreme-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, after a dramatic presidential race that shook France to its foundations.

The conservative Chirac was re-elected by the highest margin in the history of France's 44-year-old Fifth Republic. But the win, though huge, was less of a ringing endorsement of Chirac than a ringing rejection of Le Pen, joined by all of France's major political forces.

With all votes counted in mainland France, Interior Ministry figures gave Chirac 82 percent of the vote and Le Pen 18 percent -- excluding results from overseas territories. Just two weeks ago, Chirac had scored just below 20 percent in the first round of voting -- the lowest score for an incumbent president.

Chirac's victory was fueled by a larger turnout than for the April 21 first round, when 28 percent of voters stayed home. Turnout on Sunday was estimated at about 80 percent, with 20 percent abstaining.

In victory remarks, Chirac acknowledged that he had been re-elected in part by left-leaning voters who normally wouldn't have chosen him, but did so to block Le Pen, a fixture on the fringes of French politics who is widely viewed as racist and anti-Semitic.

"You took your decision in full reflection, going beyond the traditional divisions," he told voters, "and for some among you, going above and beyond your personal or political preferences."

"We have gone through a time of serious anxiety for the country," Chirac said. "But tonight, in a great spirit, France has reaffirmed its attachment to values of the Republic."

Later, under a driving rain, Chirac greeted a few thousand supporters at Paris' Place de la Republique, where earlier, supporters had danced for joy when the results popped up on a huge TV screen. He told them France had "refused to cede to the temptation of intolerance and demagoguery."

He also promised to immediately address the issue of rising crime -- a top voter concern.

Le Pen, from his headquarters near Paris, called the result "a stinging defeat for hope in France."

Chirac's win, he said, was an "equivocal victory gained by the Soviet method, with the coordination of all the social, political, economic, media forces."

Le Pen, 73, silver-haired and theatrical, who famously once called Nazi gas chambers "a detail" of World War II history, scored better than the 16.9 percent he got in the first round, but much worse than the 30 percent he'd hoped for.

His weak showing meant it was less likely that his National Front could cause problems in next month's all-important legislative elections, which decide the prime minister and the shape of the government.

However, a poll released Sunday by the Sofres agency predicted the extreme right would win one to three spots in the 577-seat National Assembly; currently it has none.

In past presidential elections, Le Pen has scored an average of 15 percent.

Chirac, 69, whose murkily defined campaign was transformed into a crusade against the far right, now faces the challenges of a relatively weak mandate, the need to answer obvious domestic discontent, and the task of repairing France's damaged international reputation.

Even with a Chirac victory, France's international stature has suffered, particularly within the European Union, said analyst Dominique Moisi.

The election "will leave a deep mark and will probably accelerate the tendency for France to have less weight in Europe compared to Britain or Germany," he said.

In Brussels, European Commission President Romano Prodi lauded the French for rejecting the views of the extreme right candidate Le Pen.

"The extremist, isolationist policies of Jean-Marie Le Pen have been rejected and crushed," Prodi said. "The French people have once again demonstrated that their nation belongs to the heart of Europe."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Sunday applauded Chirac's election victory.

"It is a victory for democracy and a defeat for extremism and the repellent policies Le Pen represents," Blair said.

Domestically, Chirac now must look ahead to June's legislative elections, where he is determined to secure a center-right majority and avoid the awkward power-sharing arrangement of the last five years. The left, for its part, is determined to regroup for the elections and erase the humiliating defeat of Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who lost to Le Pen in the first round. Jospin is expected to leave his job on Monday.

Chirac has promised to immediately begin implementing a law-and-order agenda. Jospin, has said he'll leave his job immediately after the election.

Some voters did not go happily to the polls. A few leftists said they were so displeased with the choice offered that they planned to cast ballots for the conservative Chirac, who is plagued by corruption scandals, wearing latex gloves or with clothespins on their noses. French officials warned that such a public display could lead to fines or the annulment of a vote.

Outside a polling station in the southern town of Villemagne, some activists erected a fake voting booth where voters could be sprayed with a mock "disinfectant."

"I obviously voted for Chirac, but against all my values. He is a crook, but better him than a fascist," said Serge Recolin, a 27-year-old medical student on his way to the movies.

Renaud Manceron, a 30-year-old businessman, said he was confident about his vote for Chirac because he "likes his ideas" and would have voted for him in the first round but was out of the country at the time.

"I was shocked just like everyone else," Manceron said.

For many, the election, divisive as it was, was a unifying moment as well. Street protests against Le Pen drew people from across the political spectrum, of all ages and strata of society, some in wheelchairs and some pushing strollers.

Chirac is seen as a consummate diplomat abroad but is plagued by suspicions of corruption at home, stemming from when he was mayor of Paris. Investigators want to question him about his use of hundreds of thousands of public dollars for personal vacations, and also allegations that city hall received millions in kickbacks, then funneled the money into political parties like Chirac's Rally for the Republic.

One of the most improbable elections in French history began with an unwieldy first round on April 21, when 16 candidates of all stripes and colors faced off for the two spots in Sunday's runoff.

Many voters stayed home or on vacation, bored by a campaign that appeared certain to pit Chirac against Jospin, seen as earnest but dull.

But a highly fragmented field sapped strength from the main candidates, and the first round resulted in a political earthquake when Le Pen slipped by Jospin by less than a percentage point to make the runoff.

In the streets, citizens mobilized to express their horror at Le Pen's showing. The protests reached their apex on May 1, the traditional labor holiday, when well over a million people marched in more than 100 cities and towns.

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