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French Voters Mobilized to Vote for Chirac - 2002-05-06

After chalking up a landslide victory over extreme-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen in Sunday's presidential runoff election, conservative incumbent Jacques Chirac now needs to convince French voters to give him a majority in parliament when they go to the polls again next month. If Mr. Chirac fails to get such a majority, the country could wind up with another power-sharing arrangement between right and left that could relegate the president to the sidelines of political decision-making.

Jacques Chirac was re-elected with the widest margin in French history. He got 82 percent of the votes to Mr. Le Pen's 18 percent. But his resounding victory was largely hollow because many French voters said they had cast their ballots for him simply to stop Mr. Le Pen and his anti-immigrant and anti-European Union policies.

In his victory speech Sunday night, Mr. Chirac hailed French voters for defending the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. He said France refused to give in to what he described as the temptation of intolerance and demagoguery.

He says that what unites the French is much more powerful than what can divide them. And he says that, with unity assured, it is time to move France forward and lead her onto a new road of growth and employment.

Mr. Chirac also seemed to acknowledge the contribution to his victory of the French left and the groundswell of discontent with mainstream politicians that catapulted Mr. Le Pen into the run-off.

A turnout of 81 percent of registered voters, compared to only 72 percent in the first round, attested to the mobilization of the electorate after two weeks of anti-Le Pen protests that culminated on May Day, when more than a million people marched against the leader of the extreme right.

But Mr. Le Pen was defiant in defeat, telling a crowd of his supporters that he was the only candidate who is not part of what he calls "the system." He says the political conditions under which the run-off was held were those of a totalitarian country.

He asks if it is he who is responsible for the insecurity, unemployment, high taxes, waste, corruption and excessive immigration he says are plaguing France. No, he says, the blame should fall on a French elite that will do anything to defend its interests.

Mr. Le Pen vows to take his revenge in the legislative elections, saying his National Front party is now the single biggest political force in France. His aides promise that he will campaign vigorously to split the conservative vote next month to deprive Mr. Chirac of a parliamentary majority.

The Socialists, who rallied behind Mr. Chirac to fend off Mr. Le Pen, are also serving notice that their support for the president has ended. The party's new leader, Francois Hollande, says Mr. Chirac was re-elected not for his platform but only to save democracy.

He says that, in voting for Mr. Chirac, the left sought to preserve the French republic's essential principles: liberty, equality and fraternity. But he promises to fiercely contest the parliamentary elections to make sure the Socialists and their Communist and Green allies regain their parliamentary majority.

The president is also eyeing the June poll. He calls on his backers to get out the vote for a conservative majority that will support the new policies that he wants to implement. If Mr. Chirac does not get that majority, he will most likely have to share power again with the left, and that will cripple his ability to act in every area of government except foreign and defense policy.

The president Monday named moderate conservative Jean-Pierre Raffarin as interim prime minister and pledged to get to work quickly to reduce crime, cut taxes and restore the authority of the state. But he offered no details.

One of Mr. Chirac's top political counselors, Nicolas Sarkozy, says the president has heard and understood the message from voters. He says the measures the new interim government will take in the next few days will show French citizens that the re-election of Mr. Chirac marks a new period for France.

Still, Mr. Chirac will not actually know how much leeway he will have to govern the way he wants until the last vote is counted in the second round of legislative elections on June 16.