Archive for Monday, May 6, 2002

Chirac’s re-election draws sigh of relief outside France

May 6, 2002

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— President Jacques Chirac's crushing re-election victory over far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen was greeted with relief outside France, but the congratulations were mixed with concern that the French elections sent a "warning signal" of the danger still posed by extremists.

In messages to Chirac, leaders across Europe and beyond called the victory a clear rejection of the far right and a victory for democracy. But lawmakers from across the political spectrum said mainstream leaders must not allow Chirac's huge victory _ he won 82 percent of the vote against Le Pen's isolationist and anti-immigrant policies _ to lead to complacency.

Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel said Monday the outcome sent "an important signal for all those with extremist ideas."

But, he added, "this episode in French politics is a reminder of the fragility of the democratic system and how it has to be defended and reinforced every day."

In Austria, where the far-right Freedom Party is part of the governing coalition, conservative Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel urged France to draw from the election the message that "there was a desire for changes," describing it as a wake-up call "to strengthen the political center and not the edges."

The opposition Socialist Party's chairman, Alfred Gusenbauer, cautioned that the elections sent "a warning signal ... of a Europe that's too distant from its citizens."

The Freedom Party, meanwhile, argued that "no one in France can really be pleased" with Chirac's re-election.

"The traditional parties did not find a way to offer solutions which the voters can take seriously to solve their problems," said its general secretary, Peter Sichrovsky.

The 73-year-old Le Pen has been accused of being racist and anti-Semitic, and his resounding defeat was greeted with satisfaction in Israel.

In Jerusalem, Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Melchior said that "there was a relief to see the reaction in France against ... this filth which the man has been spreading for many years, and what has been done in France over the last several weeks I think has been rather significant."

"At the same time, it worries us as we feel it worries the majority of the French people that every fifth French citizen has voted for Le Pen," Melchior told a news conference. "We have to take this very seriously and get rid of anti-Semitism in the world community."

Norway's Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik echoed the concern, stressing that "it is a cause for unease that Le Pen got so many votes as he did with the extreme views he stands for."

Still, his Danish counterpart, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, argued that the "massive denunciation" of Le Pen showed the first-round result _ in which Le Pen edged Socialist former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin out of the race _ "was a symptom of the division and discontentedness of the left wing rather than a real strengthened backing of Le Pen's disgusting policy."

Neighboring Sweden's prime minister, Goeran Persson, expressed relief that "the high turnout shows that French voters thought there was a reason to face right-wing extremism."

Chirac's Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, sent him a letter of congratulations on his "convincing victory," Putin's press service said.

Putin said Russia now hopes for "closer cooperation with France in creating a common European economic area, forming an effective system of European security capable of guaranteeing all Europeans equal security and reliable defense against new threats and challenges in the epoch of globalization."

Relief at Le Pen's defeat stretched well beyond Europe. Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian told Chirac that Le Pen threatened to abandon the traditional French values of "freedom, peace and charity," according to a statement from the Foreign Ministry in Taipei.

In Cambodia, a former French colony, Prime Minister Hun Sen also hailed Chirac's landslide.

"Le Pen was totally knocked out," he said in a speech aired on national radio.

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