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9-08-2015, 23:51

THE REVIVAL OF FRANCE

After the high drama of the de Gaulle years, President Georges Pompidou restored calm to France. Pompidou had been closely associated with de Gaulle and had served as his prime minister until the general dismissed him in July 1968. After de Gaulle’s resignation in 1969, Pompidou returned to power as his successor. A cautious conservative, Pompidou was nevertheless ready to embark on reforms designed to ease social and regional tensions. His succession to the presidency promised continuity without de Gaulle’s autocratic style of government. He was approachable, a symbol of the good life that France provided for its more fortunate citizens. With a background in finance, Pompidou had served as a director of the merchant bank Rothschild Frères. The healing of France’s divisions, the president believed, would best be served by putting France once more on the road to prosperity. An austerity programme that was set in motion in 1969, the devaluation of the franc and a loan from the International Monetary Fund, realistic steps that de Gaulle would have rejected as a slur on French nationalism, provided the springboard for future expansion. But they also provoked a rash of strikes in 1969. In France the archaic and the modern had continued to exist side by side: the small peasant farmer and the large landholder, the department store and multitudes of small shopkeepers, technologically advanced industries and artisans. Exports lagged behind those of other countries – much of French industry was not competitive. The Sixth Plan set out to modernise France more rapidly by opening it to international competition. It gave priority to industrial development, but gave less scope to central control than previous plans. Pompidou’s liberal, free-market approach achieved good results. Until the oil shock of 1973–4, Pompidou helped to accelerate industrialisation, now stimulated by world demand for French goods. The Gross Domestic Product between 1969 and 1973 grew by an annual average of 5.6 per cent, while inflation was contained and unemployment kept low. As industry became competitive once more in world markets, Pompidou cleverly cushioned French farmers, who could not be competitive. In return for agreeing to abandon de Gaulle’s veto on Britain’s entry to the EEC, he secured a good deal for France’s farmers from its Common Market partners. Apart from a softer style and a great improvement in Anglo-French relations, France’s fundamentally nationalist and independent outlook did not change much in foreign affairs. The pursuit of a European option and of detente with the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc was only temporarily successful, and not of any lasting consequence. Nor did the more friendly Gaullist policies towards the Arab states save France from the huge oil-price rises which the Arab oil-exporting countries imposed on the rest of the world after the outbreak of the Arab–Israeli War in October 1973. Pompidou’s first prime minister, Jacques Chaban-Delmas, wanted a more radical pro- gramme, a Kennedy-style ‘new society’, but was able to win the president’s consent only to limited reforms. Decentralisation and cooperation between the modern and the traditional sectors of French industry and commerce were furthered in 1969 by creating local commissions and elected chambers of commerce and industry. Indirectly elected regional bodies, created in 1972, to oversee regional development were another halfhearted attempt to broaden participation at the local level. None of these reforms went far enough and Pompidou’s last year in office before he died of cancer in April 1974 saw a decline in the economy and, in July 1972, the replacement of Chaban- Delmas by the more conservative Pierre Messmer. French politics were not a straightforward twoor three-party contest, as in Britain and the Federal Republic of Germany. The success of a dominant coalition depended on manoeuvring by the main parties, not least among groups further to their right or left. Two groups made up the right–centre coalition. First were the Gaullists, known after 1968 as the Union Democrats pour la République (UDR). Many of the UDR’s prominent members were powerful former Gaullist resistance leaders, who had accepted de Gaulle’s leadership and his emphasis on French independence and nationalism. On other economic and social issues, however, they differed widely, so as soon as the recognised leader, de Gaulle, and his accepted heir, Pompidou, had departed, their cohesion became fragile. They had also inherited the Gaullist tradition of lax discipline, which made their continued cohesion after 1974 even more problematical when the more powerful politicians contested the leadership. Though in decline after 1968, and more so after 1973, they still formed the majority in the coalition of the right. The other party of the right–centre coalition had been founded by Pompidou’s minister of finance, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. More liberal than the UDR, closer to the social-market views of the West German CDU, the Independent Republican Party (RP) was also less nationalistic, more open to European cooperation and more in favour of the American alliance. The excitement aroused by French politics in the 1970s and 1980s was therefore as much due to the rivalries within the right–centre coalition as to its contest with the socialists. On the left, the traditional division between the political parties and the trade unions dated back all the way to the Tours Congress of 1920, at which they had split. The post-war French Communist Party (PC) modelled itself closely on its bigger Soviet brother and was loyal to Moscow; but it had in its way become a conservative force too, and was careful to have nothing to do with the students’ revolutionary tactics in 1968. It took a more democratic stance in the 1970s and for a time, from 1972 to 1977, once more accepted the popular-front electoral alliance with the Socialist Party, after being wooed by François Mitterrand, the wily Socialist Party leader. But the PC’s rapid decline after 1978 (in the election of 1986 it gained only thirty-five seats, no more than the extreme-right National Front) has effected a radical change in French politics. The Socialist Party, before 1971 a creature of the centre as much as of the left, had also precipitously lost support. When François Mitterrand became its leader, he undertook to revive it with a more democratic socialist-oriented programme of nationalisation, worker control and decentralisation. He also espoused a reduction of presidential government, in line with his bitter attacks on de Gaulle’s autocratic style. Most important in laying the foundation for his eventual triumph in ending the twenty-three-year run of right– centre coalitions was his success in securing the agreement of the communists to a common programme of government. To this coalition were added other groups, including the new Radical Movement of the Left (MRG). In the presidential elections of 1974 Mitterrand came close to defeating the man who had finally emerged as the right–centre coalition’s presidential candidate, Giscard d’Estaing. Though Giscard had beaten off a Gaullist challenge in the first ballot of the elections for the presidency, before going on to beat Mitterrand by a whisker, the Gaullists in the National Assembly were not only the largest party but they had more than three times as many seats as Giscard’s RP party. Ever since he had broken away from de Gaulle in 1962, Giscard’s relations with the Gaullists had been characterised by opposition as much as by cooperation. Yet cooperation between the Gaullists and the RP was essential if they were to beat off the combined forces of the left. So Giscard set out to strengthen his government by drawing his ministers from a broad coalition of the right and centre with Jacques Chirac, a Gaullist UDR leader, as prime minister. The intensely ambitious Chirac had, like Giscard, served Pompidou as a minister, but he felt no sympathy for much of Giscard’s liberal reforming zeal, nor for his European outlook. Chirac’s power base was the UDR, whose influence Giscard was attempting to erode by creating a broad coalition of the right and centre. Giscard, who to begin with had cordially refrained from presidential interference in government affairs, was soon clashing with Chirac over control of policies. But their cooperation in 1974 and 1975 saw the passage of important reforms. Giscard projected himself as a popular people’s president, modelling his fireside television chats on those of Franklin Roosevelt, in an attempt to overcome his elitist disdain for the people. But his desire for a more liberal, modern and just society was both strong and sincere. He was sympathetic to the assertion of women’s rights and a number of laws were passed in 1974 and 1975 to help achieve equality of the sexes; greater benefits were allowed to single parents; abortion was legalised; and divorce was made easier if it was mutually desired or if the marriage had broken down. Health programmes received large additional funds. The poorest were helped by increases in the minimum wage, and Giscard also showed his concern for the lot of the immigrants from North Africa. Excessive state controls and administrative intrusions into private lives, such as telephone tapping, were restricted. These liberal reforms met with much opposition from the Gaullists in the National Assembly and passed only with the help of the left. It was clear to Chirac that his association with these Giscard-inspired policies was bound to alienate him from the Gaullist UDR. His break with the president came in August 1976, when he resigned in protest against Giscard’s interference in government and his increasing reliance on his own Elysée staff. The differences between them on social and foreign policies, with Giscard more intent on strengthening Western European cooperation and the institutions of the European Community, were real and deep. And of course an independent Chirac was in a better position to build up a political power base to displace Giscard when the time came. Without Chirac’s help, however, Giscard’s efforts after 1976 to push through further social reforms were largely frustrated. On the economic front Giscard was unfortunate to be in office during the difficult 1970s, when the shocks of increasing oil prices in 1973–4 and 1979–80 seriously damaged world trade. Nothing like this had happened before and governments in the West were uncertain how best to adjust economic policy. Giscard began in 1974 with a policy of austerity and deflation. Industrial production dropped and unemployment rose to 1 million. Then, in the characteristic stop–go pattern of the time, the policy was reversed in 1975 to counteract the recession. The result was inflation and higher wages, which led to an increase in imports and a deteriorating balance of trade. Chirac’s successor as prime minister in 1976 was Raymond Barre, who also held the post of finance minister. Barre did not come from the ranks of National Assembly politicians, but was economics professor at the Sorbonne and later vice-president of the European Commission – a background reminiscent of the highly successful German finance minister of the 1950s, Ludwig Erhard. Indeed, Barre took the German freemarket economy, with its minimum of government regulation, as his own model. The Barre Plan began with savage austerity, which reduced inflation rapidly but inevitably increased unemployment. This was followed in 1978 by a step-by-step programme to free industry from state regulations and directions. But much tighter controls were exerted over statesector industries: their subsidies were reduced and industries in trouble were no longer bailed out. The state, however, still directly oversaw the planning of what Giscard and Barre regarded as key sectors of industry. And because the dependence on imported oil had revealed an energy weakness, France embarked on a massive expansion of its nuclear-power resources, the most ambitious programme in Europe. The national budget ceased to be planned with large deficits, and continuous devaluation of the franc was no longer taken as the easy option. The Barre Plan was starting to work in 1978 and early 1979, with a favourable trade balance, growth of industrial output, a stable exchange rate and reduced inflation, but the new Middle Eastern turmoil and the second oil-price rise threw the economy off course. Inflation and unemployment rose; France was sliding again into recession. The second dose of Barre’s medicine of deflation, which caused a further rise in unemployment, coincided in May 1981 with the presidential elections. Politically, May 1981 marked a turning point in French politics: the Socialists finally made the breakthrough and captured not only the presidency but, a month later, a majority in the National Assembly elections as well. François Mitterrand had beaten his rivals to the nomination and put forward a programme designed to attract a combined left vote including that of the communists. He presented a socialist manifesto that promised to reduce unemployment, extend nationalisation, raise minimum wages, impose a tax on wealth and carry through constitutional reforms to reduce the power of an autocratic presidency, which Giscard had been accused of exploiting. The communist leader, Georges Marchais, had contested the first ballot of the presidential elections, but he had had to drop out after failing to gain first or second place, whereupon he had placed his weight behind the remaining socialist candidate Mitterrand in the run-off election. On the right, President Giscard had beaten off the challenge for the nomination from Jacques Chirac, who led the substantial Gaullist wing of the right coalition. In the second ballot, defections from traditional supporters of the right who were antagonised by Giscard’s haughty presidential style, and attracted by Mitterrand’s promise to reverse the economic austerity programme, as well as the backing of communist voters, gave Mitterrand a small but decisive majority over Giscard, of 15.7 million votes to 14.6 million. The surprise of the National Assembly elections which Mitterrand called in June was the large increase in support for the Socialist Party. The Communist Party lost further ground. With communist support in the National Assembly, Mitterrand commanded a substantial majority. The spectacular decline of Giscard’s UDF gave leadership of the combined opposition on the right to the hard-driving but not always predictable Chirac, who was distrusted by the UDF. Thus the right was in considerable disarray. Mitterrand’s honeymoon lasted just over a year. To maintain the broad support of the left and centre, he included in his government adherents from all groups. For the first time since 1947, four communist ministers were brought into the administration. Michel Rocard as minister for planning represented the market-oriented right wing of the Socialist Party and Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy the traditional socialist soft left. The government passed legislation to strengthen civil liberties, a continuation of the efforts earlier made by Giscard. Mitterrand’s electoral promises of taxes on wealth and the raising of minimum wages and welfare payments were fulfilled. Decentralisation, the Deferre Law, gave more power to elected regional councils, while the role of the centrally appointed prefects was reduced. This shifted the balance of control and local government significantly, not that central government was ready to give up its overall controlling power. A large-scale nationalisation programme was another pillar of Mitterrand’s rigorous socialist programme. The nationalisation of leading armaments, metallurgical, electrical, computer, chemical, pharmaceutical and insurance companies and banks still in private hands brought almost a third of all industry into public ownership. (Less than 20 per cent had been in public ownership before 1982.) The most spectacular part of the Mitterrand programme was the attempt to counter the worldwide recession caused by the oil-price rise with a ‘socialist’ solution: a dash for growth that reversed the Barre austerity plan. Many people in Britain at that time, suffering from the sharp retrenchment of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, which cut a swathe through manufacturing industry, looked with admiration on the bold Mitterrand strategy. The ‘recovery plan’ pumped money into the French economy, created jobs in housebuilding and the civil service, raised the income of the poorest in society and increased investment in the public sector. It was accepted that higher taxes would not pay for this as well as for nationalisation, but it was argued that in a recession a large deficit was acceptable until higher demand expanded the economy again and brought the deficit down. It did not work. Unemployment rose to 2 million and inflation soared once more above 15 per cent in October 1981; the deficit forced a devaluation of the franc, and the lack of confidence private industry felt for the Socialist government showed up in a shortage of investment and production. In June 1982 Mitterrand made his famous policy U-turn and switched to austerity and public-spending cuts proposed by the finance minister Jacques Delors. Public spending was further curtailed in the spring of 1983. Socialist reforms were downgraded in July 1984, when the able young industry minister, the undogmatic, technocrat Laurent Fabius, replaced Mauroy as prime minister. The policy turned to the centre, towards market-oriented reforms and industrial modernisation. Not surprisingly the communist ministers resigned. The French economy recovered, thanks to the application of policies not so very different from those of the Giscard–Barre years. Higher productivity had high unemployment as its trade-off, as it had in the rest of Western Europe. Mitterrand accepted the price of unpopularity in the expectation that an upturn would follow the austerity of 1984–6 in good time for the presidential elections due in 1988. In an effort to improve the chances of the Socialists, whose popularity was plummeting, he pushed through an electoral reform, changing from a ‘first-past-the-post’ system to proportional representation. The National Assembly elections in March 1986 turned out better than expected for the Socialists, who remained the largest party, picking up much support from former communist supporters. The Communist Party fared disastrously, losing a third of its votes. The broad-left coalition (including the communists), had it been reconstructed, could command only 251 votes. The right, despite the rivalries between Giscard’s UDF and Chirac’s RPR, enjoyed a clear majority with 277 votes. What caused a real shock to traditional French politics was the rise of a fascist National Front party led by the barnstorming exparatrooper Jean-Marie Le Pen. Almost one in ten voters had voted for this racist, anti-Semitic party, turning their backs on the traditional parties and placing their confidence in a leader who in the name of ‘patriotism’ attacked the North African immigrants as foreigners who caused white unemployment. Le Pen promised to bring law and order back to France. The immigrants would be forcibly repatriated. After the elections, the Fifth Republic found itself in an unprecedented condition, with a Socialist president and a National Assembly dominated by the right. Unlike the government of the US, where the executive president and those appointed to the administration are separated from Congress, the government of France is appointed by the president, but in order to function it must command a majority in the National Assembly. In March 1986, Mitterrand called on Jacques Chirac, who headed the largest of the parties of the right, to form a government. Chirac did not have an easy task, forever looking over his shoulder at the Giscard party in the National Assembly, whose members disliked him intensely; they were nevertheless an indispensable part of his majority. He also had in the Elysée a Socialist as his president. The French found a witty way to describe his predicament – cohabitation. Chirac found no room in the government for Giscard, who had hoped to return to the Finance Ministry. Thus, from the start, Chirac exposed himself not only to the opposition of the left but also to jealousy from the UDF, which was largely excluded from power. Part of Chirac’s economic recovery programme was not so different from that of the outgoing Socialist government. But there was bound to be a clash over his determination to privatise and denationalise state-owned companies. Though the president tried, he could not stop the privatisations receiving the assent of the National Assembly. Chirac also reversed the system of proportional representation, to which the National Front had owed their spectacular breakthrough nationally. With a return to ‘first past the post’, the National Front could not hope to gain many seats. The cutbacks imposed by the government were not popular. In December 1986 a long rail strike paralysed the French railways for nearly a month. Strikes spread in January 1987 in the public sector and Chirac was forced to compromise on pay and conditions. During the period from 1986 to 1988, inflation, however, fell to between 2 and 3 per cent. Mitterrand was able cleverly to project an image of standing above the parties and so escaped blame for the government’s policies. His message was that he represented a solid rallying point for the nation. Meanwhile, students and universities seethed in protest and unemployment remained above 2.5 million. Chirac accused Mitterrand of excessive presidential interference in government. The farmers, once protected by the right, have since the 1980s had to face reductions in subsidies, increased competition and generally harder times. As a ‘statesman’, Mitterrand maintained a high profile in foreign affairs, in particular playing a leading role at the European Community summits. He also cultivated close relations with the West German chancellor Helmut Kohl, thus strengthening the Bonn–Paris axis; his relations with Margaret Thatcher, on the other hand, were formal and cool. Mitterrand was just as firm as his predecessors in maintaining France’s independent nuclear strike force. When the time came for the presidential election in the spring of 1988, Mitterrand easily led the first ballot amid nine contenders; Chirac came second. The real shock was that Le Pen had secured over 4 million votes, 14.4 per cent of the votes, running fourth only just behind the respected and popular Barre. The second-ballot run-off was a foregone conclusion, with Mitterrand substantially increasing his percentage share of the votes, attaining 54 per cent to Chirac’s 46 per cent (16.7 million votes to 14.2 million). Chirac resigned the premiership and Mitterrand chose the undogmatic market-oriented Michel Rocard as his successor. He then dissolved the National Assembly. The Socialists had scored a great success, though after the second round of voting for the National Assembly they did not obtain an overall majority, achieving with their affiliated parties 276 seats. In fact, the broad left and right coalitions were fairly evenly divided. With the National Front reduced to one seat thanks to the abandonment of proportional representation, with the communists unlikely to vote with the right, and with the right divided, the centrist Socialist prime minister, Rocard, enjoyed comfortable majorities when voting took place in the Assembly. Rocard, who emphasised consensus in politics, was dull compared to Laurent Fabius. He had no grand plans, but he laid stress on solid achievement and won public approval because most people were tired of the right–left confrontations. The economy continued on a ‘virtuous’ path, with a good rate of growth and low inflation. The Rocard government did not alarm private industry and Mitterrand was clearly steering a more central political course. But a tight control over public-sector pay led to renewed strikes in the closing years of the 1980s. Financial rectitude was accompanied by close on 10 per cent unemployment, which stubbornly persisted into the 1990s. Mitterrand’s France was beset by a political malaise. The Socialist Party suffered from the deepening unpopularity of the president, though he had long ceased to follow traditional socialist policies. Meanwhile, rivalry and friction between Chirac and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing tarnished the appeal of the right. Mitterrand hoped that replacing Rocard with Mme Edith Cresson as prime minister would restore the fortunes of the socialist government. But her approval rating sank fast. Essentially, economic policy had not changed and there were no signs of an expansion sufficiently strong to absorb the unemployed. The issue that provoked most heat was the position of the North African migrants. Jean- Marie Le Pen’s National Front based its strong support largely on this widespread hostility to Arab migrants, a community mainly poor and concentrated in a few cities like Marseilles and Paris. In 1991 official figures estimated that 4 million migrants, mainly Muslim Arabs from North Africa, lived in France. Their birth rate is high and about 1 million children have been left out of this census. Racism also extended to a renewal of anti-Semitism among the National Front, which managed to seem the only really dynamic party in a stagnant political scene. In regional elections in March 1992 the Socialist Party gained only 2 per cent more votes than the National Front (at 14 per cent). In April 1992, after less than a year, Mme Cresson was replaced as prime minister by Pierre Bérégovoy. The deep malaise in politics was also reflected in the uncertainty over where France should be heading in the 1990s. Once the enthusiastic founding partners of the new Europe in close alliance with the Germans, the French people were deeply divided in September 1992 when asked to approve the Maastricht Treaty. The ‘yes’ vote was only just sufficient, and many people had voted in favour not out of a feeling of enthusiasm for Europe but rather for negative reasons. There was a widespread fear of the newly united Germany of 82 million. By a small margin the French people decided that it was safer to keep Germany hemmed in by European institutions, despite its preponderant weight in such a union, instead of leaving France to face an unfettered German colossus alone. But the biggest issue in France in 1993 was the continued recession and unemployment. At the elections for the National Assembly in March 1993 the Socialists (in power for twelve years) were swept out of office. The electoral system exaggerated the swing of seats. The Socialists lost 212 seats and were left with 70. Chirac’s RPR now occupied 247 and Giscard d’Estaing’s UDF 213, the communists fell 3 to 23, the National Front lost their only seat. Thus the right had an overwhelming majority in the 577-strong Assembly. Mitterrand chose Edouard Balladur of the RPR as the new prime minister for a new period of ‘cohabitation’. But the French people and the two rival aspirants, Giscard d’Estaing and Chirac, were waiting for the presidential elections and a chance to unseat Mitterrand himself. Mitterrand’s last years in office were clouded by rumours of scandal. Mme Cresson was not a success as prime minister; she was followed by Pierre Bérégovoy, who committed suicide amid allegations of corruption. There were questions about Mitterrand’s Vichy past and his post-war friendships with collaborators. The economy had stalled and his determination to keep in step with Germany on the path towards European integration kept the French franc strong and unemployment high. President Mitterrand had been in office for longer than any of his predecessors. It was time for a change; moreover, he was terminally ill and would only survive the forthcoming presidential elections by a few months. In May 1995 Jacques Chirac became the new president. His promise to make the reduction of unemployment a priority, to increase wages, to protect social welfare payments – all without increasing taxes – were too good to be true. And so it turned out. But it was his prime minister, Alain Juppé, who had to take responsibility for unpopular measures. The strong franc continued to hit exports. Unemployment remained too high. The changes essential to make industry more competitive were blocked by massive trade union protests in the streets of Paris. Only small reforms were accomplished and the French people tended to blame Maastricht and its strict criteria for convergence to achieve the currency union for the mess France was in. In foreign relations Chirac revived Gaullist traditions only in some respects. The resumption of nuclear testing in the South Pacific earned France worldwide protest and was a spectacular demonstration of independence. Chirac also followed a more robust independent policy in the Middle East and elsewhere. Crucially, towards Europe Chirac did not follow in the general’s footsteps. He clearly supported efforts to fulfil the Maastricht agenda for closer European union and France rejoined the military command structure of NATO in May 1996. However, he was ready to follow independent policies in the Middle East and defy the US by indicating his readiness to resume trade with Iran. Whether Chirac really enhanced France’s standing and role in the world remains questionable. What was quite clear was that he gave in to the massive protests of French workers and state employees, and so was unable to deliver his domestic agenda. France is far more prosperous than statistics would imply. The French people enjoy the highest pensions and one of the most generous welfare systems in the world. But the new economic conditions of the global market mean that change is now imperative. However, formidable resistance is encountered when any one group is hit by attempted reforms, whether they are middle-class civil servants, lorry drivers or farmers; the French, traditionally unwilling to defer to state authority, do not hesitate to take direct physical action against a government in Paris, which consequently finds it difficult to enforce unpopular legislation. At the general election in June 1997 the Gaullists were punished for having failed to deliver on President Chirac’s promises of lower taxes and unemployment. Gaullist supporters were reduced from 477 to 256 seats and Lionel Jospin and his allies gained 320 in the National Assembly. It was now the turn of the socialists to fulfil promises of 700,000 new jobs, higher minimum wages and a shorter working week. Jospin declared that the hardship involved in meeting the Maastricht criteria was too great a price to pay for monetary union. Chirac, committed to Maastricht now had to ‘cohabit’ with a Socialist prime minister of a government composed of Socialists and communists. A clash of policies seemed inevitable. It failed to materialise. Once in power, Jospin allayed fears that France had turned its back on the close partnership with Germany and gave assurances that he was still determined to meet the criteria. France, like Germany has taken a long hard look at its past. The passage of time has made it possible to explode the Gaullist myth that the real France was embodied in the wartime Free French movement rather than in the Vichy regime. The truth is that it was not the previously unknown junior general, de Gaulle, but the old Marshal Pétain, the victor of Verdun, who was regarded by the majority of French people as their saviour. Vichy France had implemented Germany’s racial policies with indecent compliance, arresting and sending Jews to their deaths at the behest of the Nazis. Of the 130,000 foreign Jews who had sought refuge in France 52,000 were deported, and of the 200,000 French Jews, 24,000 were sent east. Less than 2,000 returned. In 1997 the French government and the Church for the first time expressed a public mea culpa. However, many brave French people also hid Jews; the majority, at least 230,000, were saved. France was once more governed, from 1997 to 2002, by Chirac, a conservative Gaullist president, and Jospin a Socialist prime minister. The French electorate quite liked ‘cohabitation’ that would result in a centrist position promising no radical change as president and prime minister checked each other. That was the theory. Prime Minister Jospin was no ideologue and was effective in a quiet way. He took a pragmatic approach to politics, perhaps surprising when his flirtation with the Trotskyists while a young politician came to light. His education was solid, a graduate of the prestigious École Nationale d’Administration, he joined Mitterrand’s Socialist Party in 1971 and became education minister under Mitterrand. Later, however, he distanced himself, disturbed by the prevailing corruption that also enveloped President Chirac, allegedly, during the years when he was a mayor of Paris. Though a Socialist, he began a programme of privatisation of state industries such as Air France and French Telecom. Over the five years of the Chirac–Jospin coalition there had been a number of achievements to their credit. There were improvements in welfare provisions, the government provided additional health benefits for the poorest people. Notable was legislation allowing gay couples to form a union, the Civil Solidarity Pact, another reform was to encourage women’s parity in politics; the most notable legislation was to reduce the working week from 39 to 35 hours to provide jobs for the young. Jospin gave way to the opposition from trade unions and workers who went on massive strikes of the public services in 1999, 2000 and 2001 defending their pensions, jobs, wages and working conditions. Little of a reform agenda was achieved, though France urgently needed to move to more flexible labour, lower taxation, and an easing of the future pension liabilities. The need for this was masked by the success of the French economy during the earlier years of his government until it, too, slowed. Unlike in Germany, the economy grew robustly and over one million jobs were created. In 2002 Jospin campaigned against Chirac for the presidency. The results sent shock waves through France. After the first round he was just beaten into third place by the extreme rightwinger Jean-Marie Le Pen. The split in his socialist support, the anti-immigrant vote for Le Pen and low voter turnout were responsible for the disaster. To demonstrate their opposition to Le Pen, the socialists had now no choice but to back Chirac, the lesser evil, in the second round. This enabled Chirac to win by a landslide, 82 per cent of the vote. In June 2002 at the elections for the National Assembly, Chirac’s party, the Union for the Presidential Majority, and his newly appointed prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin received solid support, winning 399 of 577 seats. The French electorate had opted for change, but were they really ready for it? The French people in the new millennium displayed a growing disinterest in national politics. In the first round of the presidential elections in April 2002 three out of ten did not bother to vote and Le Pen received the protest anti-immigration vote of 16.9 per cent. The ‘respectable’ parties attracted less than half the voters. The people were worried above all about the threat of crime especially in the crowded city suburbs. The economy, which did well under Jospin, is slowing. Delivering one of the best health services in the world and the most generous pension rights, France is also over taxed, the population is ageing, and painful change is all but inevitable. France until the turn of the millennium, however, benefited from the booming American economy. Even so unemployment remained high at 9 per cent. The reforms that need to be tackled are: to reduce the government’s still extensive control of state industries; to reduce the pension burden, which is potentially ruinous; and to cut back the state’s take of the portion of the wealth produced by the nation which requires high taxation and dampens enterprise. Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin made a cautious start avoiding the sudden way reform was attempted and abandoned in 1995. Even though all that was proposed was that public sector workers and teachers should, like the private sector, have to work for forty years for a full pension, two and a half years longer than hitherto, and the change would not take effect for five years, it was enough to bring to the streets new waves of strikes in the spring and summer of 2003 with the unions leading the protest. But given the substantial majority in the National Assembly, the government is likely to win through. Meantime, despite all the allegations of corruption in earlier years, Chirac enjoyed unprecedented popular approval in 2003 for leading the opposition to the US–British determination to war against Saddam Hussein. With its veto power as a threat, Chirac, supported by Schröder and Putin, was able to frustrate Anglo- American diplomatic efforts to win the support of the UN for the war in Iraq. This plunged Franco- American relations to its depths. It is, however, no tenable long-term strategy. The European Union cannot afford to continue an anti- American stand, and with its relatively weak military forces and divisions, Chirac’s vision of Europe as a counterbalance to the US, lies at best decades in the future. Internationally France decreased rather than augmented its influence. Chirac had to begin to mend fences once more. At home too there is a long way to go before new policies will show results. Chirac and Rafferin are cautious, intent on winning the necessary support for their policies. They wish to persuade rather than bludgeon the opposition as Margaret Thatcher did with the British miners. A new political star made his debut first as interior minister and then as finance minister, the dynamic and pragmatic Nicolas Sarcozy. The economy in 2004 began to expand. France remains a prosperous country, with excellent welfare, but slum areas of crime surround its cities and racial tensions mar sections of society. Sarcozy had to give up the Finance Ministry in 2004 to become head of the Presidential Majority Party (UMP). He has positioned himself as a credible challenger to Chirac as the next presidential elections in 2007.

 

 

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