Does Mr Chirac have what it takes to change France?

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The Independent Online

By late Sunday night, there were two large slogans painted on the plinth of the column in the Place de la Bastille. One gave rude advice, in English, to Jean-Marie Le Pen. The other said simply: "Et maintenant?" And now what? A good question.

French voters have stared Mr Le Pen, and his repulsive, ramshackle ideas squarely in the face for two weeks, and rejected him more comprehensively than any serious candidate for high office has ever been rejected in any modern democracy. Even Lyndon Johnson's 61.1 per cent landslide against Barry Goldwater in 1964 looks like a close-run thing compared to President Jacques Chirac's 82 per cent flattening of the self-appointed spokesman of the "real people of France".

Mr Le Pen is left with just over 5,500,000 votes and a deep implantation of his xenophobic, paranoiac ideas along the Mediterranean coast, in the Rhône valley, Alsace, Lorraine and the depressed, industrial north. The other important number is 73, Mr Le Pen's age.This year was his high watermark. Without his brutal charisma, the French far right is bound for division and deflation.

Since so much has been written about France turning away from Europe, or becoming widely xenophobic, or being tempted towards the political extremes, it is worth saluting the 25,540,873 French people – many thousands of them voting for the first time – who turned out to scream down Lepenism on Sunday.

Nonetheless, as the slogan on the Bastille plinth demanded, "now what"? France is united in saying "no" to Le Pen, but it is not united in much else. President Chirac (the luckiest politician in the world) said on Sunday night that the huge, left-right vote in his favour was a call for the "refoundation" of the French Republic.

He may be right. France, by looking into the abyss, discovered the dangers of becoming too bored with politics, or cynical about government, or playing tactical voting games (a state of affairs for which the unprincipled Mr Chirac carries much of the responsibility). A new generation of young French people has poured on to the streets in the last two weeks, not to make selfish demands, not to smash the established order, but to express their attachment to the values of democracy and openness.

They thought that politics was dull, corrupt, paralysed and silly, as portrayed by the excellent, but destructive, satirical TV puppet show Les Guignols de L'info. They discovered that politics could also be about the stark choices of good and evil which faced their grandparents' generation in Europe.

Good and evil is an exciting game to play. Will they – and older French voters – remain focused on politics when it returns to the dull, complex, serious business of deciding how to run the country? What does "refoundation" of the Republic mean? Does France have the energy and will for the rebuilding of its ill-defined electoral and government system, which the crisis of April-May 2002 suggests is urgently necessary?

Can France preserve the best of its state investment in public services, while unwinding the 50 per cent or more of its GDP spent by the state? Is the country prepared to speak honestly to itself – on both right and left – about its limitations, opportunities and achievements as part of the European Union and a globalising world? There are two obstacles to solving these problems: French politicians and the French people.

It took French politicians, of both centre-right and centre-left, about five minutes after Mr Le Pen's defeat to start bickering and point-scoring in their usual sterile way. The prospects for the parliamentary elections next month look dispiriting: the left, although it has no new ideas to offer, has been pumped up by the rise of Le Pen; the centre-right, despite President Chirac's crushing victory, is divided and on the defensive.

In the meantime, President Chirac is trying to take on the mantle of Charles de Gaulle, stealing de Gaulle's celebrated phrase, "I have understood you" when he addressed the dancing crowds in the Place de la République on Sunday night.

What has he understood? His past record does not suggest that he has the imagination or mental toughness to push through the reforms – rapid reduction in taxation, slimming the state, a new ministry to lead the drive against crime – which he has promised.

His choice as new Prime Minister of a fresh, honest, provincial face in Jean-Pierre Raffarin – a man committed to decentralising France and reconnecting government with ordinary people – is encouraging. But every attempt to push through these kinds of reforms in the last 20 years has been defeated by the corporate power of the civil service, trades unions and other special interest groups. Mr Chirac and Mr Raffarin, if they win the parliamentary elections next month, will run into the same sharp-edged, granite paradox as their predecessors.

The country demands "change" but corporatist pressure groups block all advance, on the street if necessary, with the tacit or open support of most of the country. It will take a special kind of politician, a creative demagogue of the centre, to break through that rock. Nothing in Mr Chirac's barren, selfish 40-year record in politics suggests that he can transform himself, at the age of 69, into that man.