WASHINGTON — French voters figuratively, and in some cases literally, went to the polls last Sunday with clothespins on their noses.
A cynical slogan has spread like wildfire on the Web, "Vote for the crook, not for the Fascist," the first reference being to the incompleted investigation of President Jacques Chirac on corruption charges. With the 82 percent landslide for Mr. Chirac, France came back from the brink of political disaster. But it was with something less than an inspiring display of dedication to government. Most of France had been simply appalled about what happened in the first election round on April 21.
A turnout of only 72 percent (in France that is considered very low, although a lot better than the 51 percent in the last American presidential election) reflected general boredom and disillusionment with government. It helped the extreme right-wing Jean-Marie Le Pen garner some 17 percent of the vote and make it into the runoff for the first time in four tries.
Last Sunday, with a voter turnout of more than 80 percent, and with the Socialists rallying behind Chirac, France, in effect, made a course correction. Immigration, crime, and Europeanization are big issues in France, but apparently not issues to be entrusted to a party devoted to jails and expulsions.
In his victory speech, Chirac celebrated France's ancient dedication to liberty, equality, fraternity. But it should not be overlooked that Mr. Le Pen won 18 percent of the vote, his biggest percentage in 30 years of trying.
The mainstream may have won out this time, but in France, as in Austria, Germany, and Italy, radical parties are entrenching themselves, exploiting anti-foreign, anti-European, and anti-American fears and hatreds.
The killing of the Dutch maverick, Pim Fortuyn, who won 34 percent in a local Rotterdam election and was on his way to a possible 20 percent in the national election, focuses new attention on extremists.
Le Pen may have scared France into giving Chirac a landslide, but the strength that the right-wing extremist has shown should be a wake-up call beyond the borders of France. We are likely to hear more thunder on the right.
Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.