- The Washington Times - Monday, May 6, 2002

PARIS France's conservative president, Jacques Chirac, was swept back into office in a runoff against his far-right rival, Jean-Marie Le Pen, yesterday with the largest margin of victory since France began electing its presidents by direct suffrage almost 50 years ago.
With 95 percent of the votes counted, Mr. Chirac had taken home just over 82 percent of the vote, a victory analysts also described as the biggest scored in recent memory by any politician in a major Western democracy.
With just under 18 percent, Mr. Le Pen, 73, barely improved on the 16.8 percent score in the first round of voting on April 21 that put him him into the race against Mr. Chirac.
As leaders in neighboring European Union nations breathed a chorus of relief at the outcome, a jubilant Mr. Chirac, 69, addressed a large crowd gathered at Paris' Place de la Republique, where some 400,000 people demonstrated last week in a widespread call to reject Mr. Le Pen's shocking presidential candidacy.
"Tonight we are celebrating the Republic," Mr. Chirac told the jubilant, rain-drenched crowd. "France has refused to give in to the temptation of intolerance and demagoguery. She has expressed her determination for change and renewal in openness and national harmony. We must stay alert; we must defend democracy, defend equality, defend brotherhood."
Alluding to the fact that in the first round he received only 19.88 percent of the vote in what was seen as a massive protest against the French ruling class, Mr. Chirac added, "I have heard, and I understand your call."
He said fighting the country's soaring crime rate, a key campaign issue, would be the state's first priority.
Mr. Le Pen's strong stance on reducing spiraling crime helped rally support behind his anti-Europe, anti-immigrant campaign, resulting in his qualification for the runoff against Mr. Chirac.
For the National Front (FN) leader, who said that anything under 30 percent would be a "personal defeat and a defeat for France," the result was a severe disappointment, signaling a failure to go beyond the core vote he achieved on April 21.
Speaking from his campaign bunker, Mr. Le Pen said the result was a blow, and he predicted Mr. Chirac's support would crumble before June's legislative elections.
"The victory of Jacques Chirac was a victory gained by Soviet-style methods. All the television, radio, press, all methods of exerting influence, were at the service of the same cause, this great, honest man who everyone was calling 'superliar' a short time ago," he said.
"We look to the future with great confidence, and we will meet again in the legislative elections," Mr. Le Pen said. "Of the 81 percent who voted for Jacques Chirac, how many will vote for the RPR in the legislative elections?" he asked of Mr. Chirac's Rally for the Republic party.
The abstention rate yesterday was around 20 percent, lower than the 28.4 percent two weeks ago.
Immediately hailed as a massive endorsement by the president's supporters, the outcome also allowed the French left, which had urged supporters to vote for Mr. Chirac after the first-round defeat of Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, to claim victory as its own.
"France has rediscovered its colors, and the world has rediscovered France," said Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande.
During the last two weeks of campaigning, Mr. Chirac posed as a champion of France's republican values in order to rally as large a vote as possible. He is expected to act quickly to exploit the momentum of his victory.
Today he is to accept the resignation of Mr. Jospin his prime minister since 1997 before appointing his own team to lead the right into crucial parliamentary elections five weeks away.
After five years in which he has been constrained by "cohabitation" with a Socialist prime minister, the president has promised quick action to tackle the country's main problems. Besides rising crime, those include a bloated state sector and declining international competitiveness.
For that he needs first to ensure a majority in the National Assembly, without which he will once again be reduced to a figurehead with authority only in foreign and defense affairs.
But with the country's political landscape transformed after Mr. Le Pen's shocking first-round triumph, Chirac supporters are concerned the center-right will be squeezed out by left-wing parties united in their desire to avenge their presidential humiliation.
Mr. Chirac's re-election is considered by analysts in France a remarkable victory for a man who has been the butt of criticism and ridicule after being named in a series of corruption scandals concerning his time as mayor of Paris.
After successfully claiming presidential immunity in 2001 to resist the approaches of investigating magistrates, he can now postpone for another five years the moment when he may have to testify before the courts.


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