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Monsieur Chirac's Victory

BY installing Jacques Chirac in the Elysee, French voters have chosen in favor of both continuity and change.

Continuity because Mr. Chirac is a longtime player in French politics, a former prime minister, the current mayor of Paris, and a three-time presidential candidate. He arrived on the national scene nearly three decades ago as a youthful cabinet minister.

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But Chirac also convinced voters in the two-man final presidential ballot May 7 that he represented change. As a conservative, Mr. Chirac offered an obvious contrast to 14 years of rule by Socialist President Francois Mitterrand. And even though conservatives hold about 80 percent of the seats in the National Assembly, he successfully presented himself as a candidate with the fresh ideas and fresh enthusiasm needed to attack France's No. 1 domestic problem, a troubling 12.2 percent unemployment rate.

That was the overwhelming issue for French voters. For those looking in from abroad, Chirac, as a known quantity, brings hope for stability within France and in its relations with its neighbors and allies. Not the least among election bright spots was Chirac's repudiation of the ultra-right wing and National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. According to one exit poll, only 39 percent of first-round Le Pen voters backed Chirac in the final election; clearly, Chirac owes them no political debt.

The new president will soon have to more clearly declare himself on European issues, including the question of monetary union. His Rally for the Republic party has both pro-European and Euroskeptic factions; Chirac fudged the issue during the campaign by calling for a referendum on French involvement in Europe.

Ironically, the strong 47.4 percent vote for Chirac's opponent, Socialist Lionel Jospin, indicates that the French left may be undergoing a revival even as conservatives dominate at almost every level of government. That could make the parliamentary elections, which must be called by 1998, more interesting than Chirac might wish.

An opposition triumph in the legislature could make the last four years of Chirac's presidency a whole lot less fun (see Bill Clinton for details).

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