Le Pen defeated but defiant

· Far-right leader gains 5.8m votes
· Re-elected Chirac vows to heal France
· Blair hails 'victory for democracy'

Jacques Chirac was re-elected president of France by a landslide yesterday but his rival Jean-Marie Le Pen, far from being wiped off the political map as his opponents had hoped, booked the highest score ever recorded by the French far right.

Usually reliable exit polls gave the president an 82% share of the vote against 17% for the racist National Front leader. It was the largest margin of victory ever achieved by a French president.

Relief at the scale of Mr Chirac's victory was tempered by the realisation that despite two weeks of huge anti-Le Pen protests around France and an unprecedented media offensive, the former paratrooper still managed to collect several hundred thousand more votes than the total far-right score in last month's first round.

With turnout significantly up at just over 80%, Mr Le Pen - who once described the Nazi gas chambers as a "detail of history" - managed to win the backing of just under six million French voters, more than his party has ever managed in its 30-year history.

That kind of support, likely to be automatically transferred to the National Front's candidates in June's parliamentary polls, could leave the far-right party holding the balance of power in nearly half of France's constituencies.

Mr Chirac, endorsed by every mainstream French political party from the Communists to the free-market Liberal Democrats after last month's shock first-round vote sent him and Mr Le Pen through to the second round, hailed his win as "a victory for democracy" within minutes.

"We have gone through a time of very serious anxiety for this country," Mr Chirac said before cheering crowds at his Paris campaign headquarters. "But tonight, France has reaffirmed its attachment to the values of the Republic."

He promised voters that he had understood their calls for reform and said he would soon appoint a "broad-based and inclusive" transitional government that would make fighting crime and boosting economic growth its top priorities.

A far from despondent Mr Le Pen told campaigners at his headquarters in the Paris suburb of St-Cloud that Mr Chirac's victory was "an equivocal one, acquired by Soviet methods and with the combined help of all the social, political, economic and media forces".

He looked forward to next month's general elections with great confidence. "I won't have to wait long to see the allies of Mr Chirac's morbid coalition tear themselves apart," he said.

Tony Blair last night also described Jacques Chirac's win as a "victory for democracy" and a defeat for the "repellent" views of Mr Le Pen.

Mr Le Pen, 73, plunged France into turmoil on April 21 by narrowly beating the Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, into second place in the first-round vote with a score of just under 17%. Mr Chirac scraped the top slot with 19.8% of the vote, the lowest score ever for an incumbent president.

The second round turned rapidly into a referendum on the far right after Roman Catholic church leaders, trade unions and business groups joined opposition politicians in endorsing Mr Chirac as the guardian of French democracy against Mr Le Pen's far right.

On a cold, grey day in most of France, many voters did their democratic duty numbly. "I voted for Chirac today because there was just no choice," said Eric Loshouarn, a Paris musician who had voted for Mr Jospin in the first round. "This is the first time in my life I have voted for the right and it makes me feel ill."

In the capital, police cordoned off the Place de la Republique, where Mr Chirac's conservative supporters were getting ready for their victory party. Buses full of riot police ran from there to the symbolic Place de la Bastille, where leftwingers who reluctantly voted for Mr Chirac planned to gather to warn him that his win would not have been achieved without their help.

Mr Le Pen had set himself the target of 30% but in the past few days seemed to have resigned himself to defeat, even suggesting on Friday that he would be robbed by "electoral fraud".

Mr Le Pen's far-right platform tapped into a broad vein of discontent with mainstream French politics. It included locking illegal immigrants up in transit camps before expelling them, removing France from the euro, and giving native-born French preference in jobs, housing and health benefits.


Jon Henley in Paris

The GuardianTramp

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