France Relieved to Discover It Is Not a Fascist Country after All ; ANALYSIS; FRENCH PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS

Article excerpt

THE MASSIVE vote for President Chirac yesterday gives him the biggest electoral mandate that any French President has enjoyed. The result will allay much of the social panic that has stalked the country for the past two weeks and should allow France to shake off the ignominy heaped upon it from abroad after the result of the first round.

The swingeing defeat inflicted on the National Front must also, in effect, mark the end of Jean-Marie Le Pen's rollercoaster political career. Mr Le Pen's boast that his National Front would broaden its appeal in the second round of voting by drawing support from other parties was thoroughly discredited.

And although in numbers the National Front increased its vote, this was due to the much higher turn-out. Its proportion of the vote barely shifted. If anything, given that Mr Le Pen had his own first- round votes and those of Bruno Megret's far-right splinter party to call on, the far right's share actually fell. The combination of yesterday's result and the markedly higher turn-out shows up the first-round result - which made the National Front briefly the second force in French politics - as the aberration that it was, and demonstrates that the far right in France is a minority, albeit one that is well organised and convinced of its cause.

While extremely heartening for the mainstream majority in France and a vindication of Mr Chirac's tough second-round tactics, yesterday's result is deceptive. The re-elected President's record mandate exists largely on paper. His first-round score of less than 20 per cent of the vote also makes him the President elected with the least popular support.

The French left, in effect disenfranchised by the first-round vote, had feared that a large second-round vote for Mr Le Pen would force Mr Chirac to lean politically to the right in his second term, and there were signs in some of his later election broadcasts that he was starting to address the sort of concerns that are dear to the National Front - such as French identity, patriotism and respect for authority. That is no longer so necessary.

Yesterday's result does not, however, give him a straight Gaullist or Chiraquien mandate. …