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Chirac: Lesser of two evils?

To avoid another so-called "spectator presidency," Chirac must also convince voters to give him a legislative majority  

By CNN Senior Correspondent Jim Bittermann

PARIS, France (CNN) -- As he thanked supporters on election night, President Jacques Chirac had every reason to be in a buoyant mood.

After all, he had just been elected to a second term as France's head of state by four out of every five voters in Sunday's runoff.

But it's not something that should go to his head, because he was the first choice of fewer than one voter in five in April's first-round vote.

In a 35-year political career that has had its share of ups and downs, Chirac is now in the unique position of having won another five years as president because he was, to many voters, the lesser of two evils -- the greater being his second-round opponent from the extreme right, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

The French, as Chirac himself pointed out in his last campaign speech, didn't have much choice.

Profile: Jacques Chirac 
In-depth: France Decides 2002 

"We must reject extremism in the name of the honour of France, in the name of the unity of our own nation," Chirac said before Sunday's vote. "I call on all French to massively vote for republican ideals against the extreme right."

Even if one is elected by default -- by virtue of a vote against, rather than a vote for -- becoming president of France is not all that bad. After seven years in office, Chirac knows that better than anyone else.

But if he wants to avoid the acrimony and desultory politics of most of those seven years when, as head of state, he had to share power with a head of government who was his bitter political rival -- Chirac must have very long electoral coattails.

He must make sure his party -- or at worst, his party's allies -- sweep to power in the National Assembly when legislative elections are held in June.

Those elections for the National Assembly are now crucial, mainly because French voters, analysts say, will be increasingly cynical -- and increasingly tempted to extremist politics -- if the two main political parties try once again to govern together.

Another period of power sharing, Chirac's advisers believe, will produce another period of dysfunctional government.

"It would be horrible, it would be terrible ... because it would bring instability again in the country," says Chirac adviser Pierre Lequiller. "The French public would be furious. ... It would be a disaster."

Two campaigns

If May 17, 1995 -- when Chirac succeeded Francois Mitterand as president of France -- was one of his best days, then June 2, 1997, must have been one of his worst.

Trying to firm up his party's government coalition, Chirac dissolved parliament for anticipated elections -- a strategy that backfired and propelled Socialist Lionel Jospin into the leadership post of prime minister.

The power-sharing arrangement of the last five years between Chirac and Jospin has proved just how little power a French president really has.

Chirac controls only foreign and military policy -- and even then, the purse strings remain in the hands of the prime minister. Short of dissolving parliament and calling for new elections, the president can do very little about crime, the economy and the other major election issues without the government on his side.

And so if Chirac really wants to follow through on his election promises -- and avoid another term of what some have called a "spectator presidency" -- the 69-year-old must win more than just this election.

To be truly victorious, he must lead another successful campaign for the national parliament.

It's a substantial burden for someone tainted by financial scandals and viewed by critics as being tired and predictable.

Dogged by scandal

For three decades Chirac had laboured to emerge from the political wilderness to follow in the path of his political role model, postwar President Charles de Gaulle.

But if his 18 years as mayor of Paris proved the launching pad for his first presidential campaign, it threatened to become a liability during this election because of a dead man and a fugitive.

The dead man, former aide Jean-Claude Mery, electronically rose from the grave to accuse Chirac on videotape of having personally accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash to finance his political party.

And the fugitive, former civil servant Didier Schuller, came back from seven years on the run to write a book confirming the dead man's story.

Schuller, author of "I Return," wonders why Chirac did not come clean: "To say, look, OK, what I did was what everybody was doing, but I explain to you now what I was doing."

That he was not more forthcoming about the affair contributed to the most enduring caricature of Chirac on the popular TV puppet show Les Guignols d'Info as "Supermenteur," or Super-liar -- something political cartoonists love to highlight by giving him a Pinocchio-like nose.

Close acquaintances will tell you that the characterisation is just not fair, that Chirac's truthfulness is on par with any other politician.

"He's extremely well-organised, serious, meticulous, studies a lot, reads a lot, a warm person and nice guy," says Chirac supporter Pierre Lelouche.

But it may not matter that each passing election indicates that Chirac does not inspire the electorate as he once did.

The constant campaigner has outlasted his opponents. And in politics, survival can be everything.




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