French mandate: Repair democracy

Even after a landslide win Sunday, President Chirac faces challenges raised by right-wing opponent Le Pen.

Fresh from his landslide presidential victory, Jacques Chirac may, paradoxically, prove to be the weakest chief executive in modern times here.

A longtime politician tainted by financial scandals while he was mayor of Paris, Mr. Chirac, a conservative, owes his 82-percent win not to an overwhelming mandate, but to a massive rejection of far-right nationalist candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Though France and worried leaders in other European countries are breathing a collective sigh of relief at the defeat of rightist extremism and Mr. Le Pen, the election has revealed deep fissures of discontent among the electorate here.

"Chirac was elected not on the basis of a program, but with a simple mandate – to keep democracy alive," Socialist Party secretary François Hollande says. "The right would be wrong to claim it has the confidence of the country."

The results of the April 21 first round offered an alarming X-ray of the country's political mood. Voter apathy, reflected in an abstention rate of almost 30 percent, and an array of fringe candidates on the far left and far right, contributed to the defeat of the socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin.

"Abstention and protest votes are a clear manifestation of defiance towards a political system that bogs France down in leadership paralysis," says Christian Blanc, a former public sector official and former CEO of Merrill Lynch France who recently started a political think tank.

"In the two years to come, the government will have to introduce the deep changes needed to restore confidence in the capacity of democratic institutions and political parties to move the country ahead and respond to citizens' expectations," Mr. Blanc adds.

The next battle comes in June, as France elects its next parliament.

The socialists hope to capitalize on two weeks of massive street protests against Le Pen, who campaigned on an anti-immigrant, anti-EU platform. To avoid the kind of splintering that was partly to blame for Jospin's first-round defeat, the socialists are now trying to forge an alliance with the Greens, the Communist Party, and other small left-wing parties

Mr. Chirac wants a political majority and hopes to avoid "cohabitation." This odd feature of French political life has forced power sharing between right and left three times in the last 15 years and is largely blamed for causing the deadlock that has fueled voter disenchantment toward the political establishment.

Polls are projecting a narrow majority for Mr. Chirac in parliament. But whether his future government will be able to tackle the issues that the first round of the election laid bare remains to be seen.

Despite having been strongly rebuffed in Sunday's runoff, Le Pen and his supporters are not a spent political force. Le Pen received about 18 percent of the vote Sunday, and his National Front party may garner enough votes to enter parliament for the first time next month.

Meanwhile, the French political establishment now seems to admit that if Le Pen offered the wrong answers, he nonetheless may have raised the right issues: the rise in the crime rate, France's failure to successfully integrate ethnic minorities, the widening social and economical divide, and fears of a loss of French identity through globalization.

Mr. Chirac has already announced his intention to act speedily on crime and is expected to create a superministry to tackle the issue. But there is no quick fix for the political stagnation that the election revealed. Whether the answers can even be found in France's current political system is now strongly challenged. A growing number of voices are calling for a change of Constitution that would redefine political and institutional powers.

• Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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