PERIGUEUX, France, May 5 (UPI) -- The incumbent conservative President Jacques Chirac was re-elected to a second 5-year term Sunday, crushing the challenge of extreme right-wing candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen with over 81 percent of the vote, according to exit polls.
"The electors were strongly mobilized and strongly motivated," commented France-Inter national radio, and almost 4 million of the voters who stayed at home in the first round two weeks ago flocked to the polls to defeat the far right challenge.
But Le Pen scored the most dramatic result of any far-right candidate in a major Western European country since the end of World War II, with his messages of a firm clampdown on crime and immigration and withdrawal from the European Union.
Despite his defeat, the political echoes of Le Pen's challenge -- and his defeat of the socialist candidate Prime Minister Lionel Jospin -- will haunt France and long reverberate through Europe.
Chirac was elected with 81.7 percent of the vote, to 18.3 percent for Le Pen. This was higher than Le Pen's 16.8 percent in the first round, but far less than he could have expected if the votes of other far right candidates had all gone his way.
Despite his overwhelming victory, President Chirac has a divided mandate, symbolized by the twin celebrations in two different parts of Paris as the polls closed. His own conservative supporters began gathering at the Place de la Republique early Sunday evening, while the French left, members of the Socialist and Communist parties, gathered at the Place de la Bastille, site of the launch of the French revolution in 1789.
The left wing supporters had, in the words of French socialist minister Martine Aubry, "held their noses and donned their rubber gloves and voted for Chirac" -- simply in order to stop Le Pen.
"Better the crook than the fascist," was the left's slogan, referring to Chirac's use of his Presidential status to avoid interrogation by French magistrates inquiring into political funding scandals while he was mayor of Paris.
But while the left rallied behind Chirac in the name of the democratic Republic, their support ended Sunday night when the polls closed, as the left wing rally in the Place de la Bastille looked ahead to next month's elections for the National Assembly when they seek to elect a socialist-led government to rule alongside President Chirac.
"The real change between the two rounds of voting was that the electorate that had been apathetic suddenly became passionately involved in what had become a grand political drama with the whole world watching," said political commentator Stephane Rozelle. "And while the first round of voting saw a dynamic of protest against the established parties, the second round was driven by a dynamic of democratic mobilization to save the Republic."