Right in the line of a republic's fire

June 28, 2002

Jacques Chirac's party has swept to power with a huge majority, but, says Jim Shields, the left, once recovered, may just have to let history repeat itself.

The parliamentary elections of June 16 marked the end of an electoral season in France that saw voters called to the polls four times in eight weeks. They also completed the transformation of the neo-Gaullist Jacques Chirac from a near-impotent president, trapped in "cohabitation" with a hostile leftwing government, to the most resoundingly elected and arguably most powerful head of state in the history of the Fifth Republic. Having recorded the lowest vote for an incumbent in the first round of the presidential contest (under 20 per cent), Chirac secured an overwhelming 82 per cent in the run-off against his extreme-right opponent, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Now his hastily assembled centre-right movement, the Union for the Presidential Majority (UMP), has won 355 of the 577 seats in the National Assembly in a landslide that saw the mainstream right sweep 399 seats to the combined left's 178.

This result leaves Chirac in control of all the major political institutions of France - presidency, government, National Assembly and Senate (with quasi-control, too, over the Constitutional Council, France's legislative watchdog). Even General de Gaulle, for all his loftiness, faced a recalcitrant Senate that eventually proved his undoing.

Having occupied the presidency, the government or both for 19 of the past 21 years, the left now confronts the prospect of five years in opposition.

A few weeks ago, France had a large left-wing majority in the National Assembly, a Socialist-led government and, in Lionel Jospin, a prime minister who had every prospect of ousting a president more noted for corruption allegations than for any achievement in seven years as occupant of the Elysee Palace. So what went wrong?

The first and major reason for the defeat of the left must be laid at the door of Jospin himself. Although his government sparked economic growth, cut unemployment from 12 to 9 per cent and effected the transition to a 35-hour working week, with better welfare cover and job security for many, it was neither socialist enough to satisfy the grassroots left nor social-democratic enough to convince the centre. Jospin ran a lacklustre, visionless campaign, more schoolmaster than statesman. He misjudged the mood of voters on vexed issues such as fear of crime and the downside of the 35-hour week. Despite a reputation for honesty, he exuded the remote, technocratic arrogance that the French have come to resent in their political class.

The effect of squandering a potential victory was compounded by that of resigning. Technically, Jospin could have remained in office, and with him his entire government, until after the parliamentary elections. His abrupt departure, though understandable, obliged the left to wage an electoral campaign without a recognised leader. More important, it allowed the re-elected Chirac to instal a centre-right government with insufficient time or power to make mistakes but with enough of both to make eye-catching gestures on law and order, illegal immigration and taxation. The modest performance of Le Pen's Front National in the parliamentary elections can be ascribed in part to the interim government's muscular appropriation of these issues.

A second reason for the defeat of the left lies in the damaging effects of division that saw a quarter of votes in the first presidential ballot go to minority left candidates. As though nothing had been learnt from the presidential debacle, the left approached the parliamentary elections with the same divisions to the fore. Socialists, Communists, Greens and Radicals ran single candidates for fewer than 40 seats, with looser cooperation in other constituencies, against an almost full field of UMP candidates. Trotskyists and others competed independently - against one another and everyone else on the left. Prominent Socialists appeared more concerned with jockeying for the vacant leadership of the centre-left than with making common cause to defeat the right.

Faced with a record number of candidates (15 on average for each seat, in one Paris constituency), the electorate responded with a record abstention rate (35 to 40 per cent over both rounds). This damaged the divided left more than the unified centre-right. Many of those on the left who did vote appeared more circumspect this time, helping the Socialists to hold firm at the expense of other components of the left. The bitter irony for the Socialists is that their "allies" proved damagingly strong in the presidential contest and damagingly weak in the parliamentary vote, where combined strength and tactical alliances between the rounds make a difference.

A third explanation for the failure of the left lies in the peculiar circumstances of the parliamentary campaign. Having supported Chirac in the presidential run-off, Socialists and others could scarcely protest that he was not to be trusted with power; having warned against "cohabitation" when the presidency seemed unwinnable, they could not then argue convincingly for it.

The unresolved question for the Socialists is which way to face. Modernisers insist that the party must chart its future in the social-democratic centre, developing a socialisme nouveau on the model of new Labour; the old guard argue - with some reason - that Jospin's failure to secure the traditional left cost him the presidency. In the short term, the latter have prevailed by imposing a more leftwing programme pledging a rise in the minimum wage, investment in public housing, stiffer penalties for companies flouting labour law, and a halt to privatisation. Against the centre-right's proposals to cut taxes, reduce social charges on business, relax the 35-hour week and clamp down on crime, this might have the merit of offering voters some old-fashioned choice. But it merely defers the inevitable in the Socialist Party's showdown with itself.

The French left has been the architect of its own misfortune. In defeat, the prevailing sentiment is resignation. For some it may also be relief. A spell in opposition will give the Socialist Party a chance to choose a new leader and to re-set its ideological bearings. Already eyes are turning to the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2007.

There is a lot of thankless work to be done in government before then, and the president will no longer have the excuse of cohabitation behind which to shelter. Neither he nor his prime minister has explained how they propose to cut taxes, increase spending on police and defence, and balance the budget in line with the euro stability pact. Rationalising the public sector might seem an obvious place to start; but the last time Chirac set a centre-right government to reform France's over-extended public administration and welfare system, it met with mass protests and electoral defeat. With mutterings already of a third round of voting "in the street", France's Socialists may just discover that the best place to be, for a while, is away from the firing line.

Jim Shields is a senior lecturer in French studies at the University of Warwick.

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