France has rejected xenophobia, but little else has been decided

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The Independent Online

Jacques Chirac is by any measure a lucky politician. He embarked on his re-election campaign with little to show for his seven years at the Elysée and an aura of corruption that had been accumulating for decades. He has now been re-elected President of France with a landslide majority of record proportions, because instead of facing his honourable Socialist prime minister in the run-off, he faced the far-right National Front candidate instead.

Rather than defending his presidential record, Mr Chirac was able to present himself as the defender of democracy. An election that was expected to test the claims to power of France's mainstream right and left turned into a referendum on the extreme right. And after two weeks of introspective alarm, a France that stands for moderation and tolerance has prevailed. The four-to-one vote for Mr Chirac on Sunday should banish qualms about the soundness of French democracy. Presented with a clear choice between democracy and demagogy, France chose democracy.

The vote should also allay fears about French xenophobia, France's underlying commitment to Europe and the seriousness with which it upholds its guiding principles of liberté, egalité and fraternité. The National Front challenge was comprehensively rejected. Despite equal television airtime, the far right made little headway between the first and second rounds. Its appeal remains strictly limited.

But before the French and their many friends abroad relax into complacency, it is important to separate what this French election of 2002 does and does not mean. Mr Chirac's unprecedented majority does not amount to an unprecedented mandate, either for himself or the brand of Gaullism he represents. His first-round score of less than 20 per cent of the vote is undoubtedly a more accurate gauge of his public standing than his 80 per cent score in the second. The French left, sensibly, decided that the need to oppose the far right outweighed its desire to oppose Mr Chirac, and turned out in force to vote. But that left-right alliance was over as soon as the National Front was defeated. Mr Chirac must recognise the fragility of his victory – and trim his policies accordingly.

Additionally, the trouncing of the National Front was less comprehensive than the national picture suggests. Despite all the street protests, denunciations by popular stars and philosophical critiques designed to show far-right voters the error of their ways, those who voted for the National Front in the first round largely stood by their choice in the second. And while the far right's tally remained below 20 per cent nationwide, it nudged 30 per cent across parts of the south, east and north. There is a hard-core vote for the far right in France that has grown over the years and should not be ignored.

Finally, it is worth recalling that the first-round campaign of France's 2002 election was widely dismissed as one of the most boring and inconsequential on record. The shock of the first-round result had a salutary effect on France which, it may be hoped, will reverberate further afield.

Voters may excuse their apathy by citing disgust with the machinations of professional politicians or the questionable usefulness of voting now that ideological differences are so often blurred into technocratic centrism. But the French election proved that a vote in a democracy is something that should not be squandered. Sunday's near 80 per cent turn-out shows that French voters have learned that lesson – and so should we