The re-election of French President Jacques Chirac on Sunday was no surprise; the only question was what margin of victory he would secure over extreme rightwing challenger Mr. Jean-Marie Le Pen. Mr. Chirac’s 80 percent of the vote was, therefore, reassuring to all outside Le Pen’s National Front as the left rallied to the neo-Gaullist president after its own contender, Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, was eliminated in the first round of voting April 21.
However, while the specter of France swinging to the far right was repelled, the election has brought to the surface troubling issues that the country’s politicians have preferred to ignore. The question now is whether they will address these issues, including the future of the present constitutional system, or whether they will try to sweep them under the carpet once again.
As the results came in, both left and right agreed that it was time for a taking of the national stock. They took comfort from Mr. Le Pen’s poor showing and promised to cater to voters who had been tempted to vote for him, notably young people, the unemployed and workers who feel marginalized by society.
But the national alienation from mainstream politics was palpable in the first round of voting, in which 16 candidates ran, and in which Mr. Chirac was able to secure only 19 percent of the vote, followed by Mr. Le Pen with 17 percent and Mr. Jospin with 16 percent. Although on Sunday Mr. Chirac scored a record majority, his core support is worryingly thin. Equally, the Socialist Party faces the major task of deciding whether it wants to swing more to the center in a modernizing mode, or to revert to more leftwing policies to regain working-class voters who have defected to the National Front.
The challenge facing orthodox politicians was epitomized by the demonstrators who turned out against Mr. Le Pen. They want a new brand of politics and an end to France’s two-tier society with its rising crime rate, racial tension with Arab and African immigrants and high unemployment.
The task facing Mr. Chirac is awesome; to remake the Fifth Republic, founded by Gen. Charles de Gaulle in 1958, to fit the needs of the new century and a vastly different country. Whether he can rise to the heights laid out in his victory addresses is the key question for France. One problem is that the president needs to win parliamentary elections in June if he is to have the political clout to rule effectively — something he has lacked since his rightwing supporters lost control of the legislature to the left in 1997, ushering in the period of cohabitation with Mr. Jospin. To get a majority in the National Assembly will mean carrying out old-fashioned party politics against the left, which is hardly in keeping with the message of national unity and reconciliation Mr. Chirac preached on Sunday night.
If this makes him a partisan figure, it will reduce his ability to heal the divisions that have fed Mr. Le Pen’s success. But if he seeks to rise above party battles he risks reducing the power of the presidency even further than it has fallen in the last five years as Mr. Jospin took charge of domestic policy matters.
This has raised the question of whether it is time for a sixth republic. The answer is probably yes. The present system, designed for the imperious Gen. de Gaulle, no longer works. Power is both concentrated in a small elite and diffused because that elite cannot live up to its responsibilities. The incoherent first round result was one outcome of this state of affairs. Another is France’s anxiety about its place in the world and the steady decline of its influence within the European Union.
There have been two basic suggestions about how to change the republic. One advocates a stronger presidency, the abolition of the prime minister’s post and an American-style system. The other proposes that the president should become like a European monarch, with no executive authority, and that, along British lines, power should lie with a prime minister backed by a parliamentary majority.
The fragmented nature of French politics, which the presidential contest demonstrated so clearly, raises problems for both suggestions. There is also the difficulty that any change would have to be implemented by a political establishment that may not be ready to sign its own death warrant.
The problems that the National Front exploits will not go away. It must not be forgotten that 5 million voters stuck by the extreme right and that, in numbers, if not in percentages, Mr. Le Pen increased his share of the vote. Ever since it began its rise in the mid-1980s, the National Front has prospered on the refusal of mainstream politicians to confront it, in the hope that, if it was ignored, it would fade away. Sunday’s victory for the values of the Republic could prove fleeting if French politics continue in their old ways.
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