French Celebrate Chirac Victory, Ponder Meaning Of Far-Right Gains

By Eva Cahen | July 7, 2008 | 8:11 PM EDT

Paris ( - French President Jacques Chirac won a landslide victory Sunday against far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, ending an unusual race in which opposition left-wingers mobilized - many of them reluctantly - to vote for the center-right incumbent.

Chirac won an unprecedented 82 percent of the vote, the highest percentage in the history of France's Fifth Republic (1958 to the present).

Alarmed at the prospect of a president widely regarded as a racist, left- and right-wing leaders were quick to call Chirac's re-election a victory for the republic and for democracy.

While Le Pen, leader of the National Front, described the result as a "stinging defeat of hope in France," Chirac in his victory speech said the country had "reaffirmed its attachment to the values of the republic."

That view was echoed by Chirac's traditional rivals, the Socialists, whose standard-bearer, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, was unexpectedly voted out of the presidential race on April 21, when the first round went to Chirac and Le Pen.

Le Pen's surprise candidacy sparked daily demonstrations, with hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets to call for his defeat.

Although Chirac won comfortably, Le Pen took a million votes more in the second round than he had in the earlier one.

Some commentators pointed out that nearly one in five votes went to a man notorious for calling the Nazi gas chambers "a detail of history," and who ran on an anti-immigration and anti-European Union platform.

In fact Le Pen, who denies charges of anti-Semitism, scored one of the highest results of any far-right candidate in a western European country since the end of World War II.

Shortly after Sunday's run-off results were announced, he went on national television to accuse his opponent of achieving victory through "Soviet-style tactics," but he also reminded France that his movement was thriving.

"We look to the future with great confidence," he said, predicting his National Front would do well in legislative elections on June 9 and 16.

Chirac was shaken by his poor performance in the first round. Allthough he emerged as the leader, it was a poor score for an incumbent president.

His massive victory in the run-off was widely seen as having more to do with a reaction to Le Pen than a change of heart by the electorate in his favor.

In his victory speech, Chirac told voters he had heard their message, and promised his first priority would be to address what has emerged as a critical issue for many voters -- growing crime and violence rates.

The next big question is whether Chirac's party can obtain a majority of votes in the forthcoming legislative elections.

For the past five years, Chirac has been forced to govern France together with the Socialist Jospin in a right-left power-sharing system known as co-habitation.

Chirac's name has come up in connection with several corruption scandals, and many left-wingers voted for him very reluctantly.

The difficulty he faces as legislative elections approach was made evident Sunday night, when the left and right held rival celebrations in Paris.

Chirac supporters gathered for a victory party at the Place de la Republique, where the president made a brief appearance, while leftist parties marked the triumph over Le Pen -- rather than the victory for Chirac -- at a separate rally at the place de la Bastille, the site where the French revolution began.

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