PARIS — The French political scene is presently — and probably for sometime to come — dominated by the results of the European parliamentary election held June 13. Many commentators spoke of an earthquake. Here are the reasons why.
First, there are always many abstentions in such a vote, reflecting the weak interest in the European Parliament’s debates. But a record was set this time: 51 percent opted out, against 43.2 percent in the previous vote five years ago. Even if the numbers are worse in Britain (77 percent), the Netherlands (70 percent), Portugal, Germany and Finland, it reduces the meaning of the French results.
Second, nobody expected the anti-European list led by “souverainist” Charles Pasqua, a former Gaullist home minister, would come second, bypassing the alliance between the official Gaullist party and the liberal right, which President Jacques Chirac supported. This is his second key mistake. Two years ago he suddenly called a new parliamentary election, opening the way to a cruel defeat of his party. Now, this latest setback is a clear disavowal of his action as head of the state. It was a major surprise for him, as he had relied until the vote on polls persistently showing high popularity ratings for Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and himself.
Coming after the war in Kosovo, during which he much enjoyed playing the role of chief of the armed forces, the results struck a blow to his ambition to be re-elected in 2002 at the end of his seven-year term.
Third, there was a similar result in Britain: According to all polls, Tony Blair is the most popular prime minister since the war. Why then did the European election give a clear majority to the Conservative Party, which seemed unable to recover from its stunning electoral defeat in 1997?
In Blair’s case, however, the Labor party enjoys such a majority in the House of Commons, and the Tory opposition so obviously lacks a personality of his size at its head, that he still has a bright future.
The same can’t be said of Chirac. The defeat of his friends in the Euro-election means that he has practically lost all possibility of using the threat of a new election, either parliamentary or presidential, to make his opinions prevail over the socialist government. Nicolas Baverez, the rising star of the “centrist” intellectuals, wrote a column, on Le Monde’s front page, under the headline “A seven year-term for nothing” — without any question mark. In it, he made a totally negative assessment of Chirac’s action. Without using Chirac’s name, but leaving no doubt as to who was his real target, former President Giscard d’Estaing called for “popular forums” to appoint new leaders of the opposition.
Rivalries between the present leaders have gone so far that the Rally for the Republic (RPR), which claims to be the Gaullist party, presently has no chairman. Populist Philippe Seguin, who holds the job since Alain Juppe, a former prime minister who is highly gifted but very unpopular because of his arrogance, resigned during the European election campaign as a result of fundamental disagreements with Chirac and others. Appointed provisional chairman of the RPR and head of the rightist list, Nicolas Sarkozy decided to take responsibility for the defeat of his party and resigned once the returns were in.
Chirac’s attempt to call old friend Juppe back to the post had no support. Add the fact that the rift between pro- and anti-Europeans in the opposition has reached the point where any reconciliation is unthinkable and you have the measure of the problem faced by the right.
This disarray helps to understand why, unlike in Britain and Germany, the left won the election in France. This left calls itself “plural” since it’s made of several families.
The communists only polled 7 percent of the vote, their worst showing in decades: Many members of their party are very critical of the virtually social-democratic line followed by their rather inconsistent leader Robert Hue, as well as of the party’s participation in a government the politics of which they often do not approve.
The communists were neatly outflanked by the Greens, thanks to its 100 percent pro-European line, and to the charisma of Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the head of their list, a perfectly bilingual German politician who was one of the stars of the student uprising in May 1968. The Greens have already made it clear that they expect more seats in the government, since they have less than these communists, who they have so neatly bypassed. Jospin has made it clear that he doesn’t think the outcome of the elections called for a reshaping of the Cabinet at the present time. It would be a surprise if the Greens didn’t voice again their claims at fall.
Other interesting features of this election: The Trotskyite extreme-left which, for the first time managed to unite, reached the 5-percent level needed for representation in Strasbourg. It did so at the expense of the communists, who are no longer considered to be revolutionaries by the workers and intellectuals who want to destroy a society based on too many inequalities.
The extreme right, whose 15 percent share in the last general election paradoxically helped the left win (by refusing to withdraw during the second round they split the conservative vote), paid the price for the rift between Jean-Marie le Pen and his former heir apparent Bruno Megret: Le Pen polled only 5.7 percent and Megret 3.3 percent. A good number of their usual backers, disgusted by the hatred they heard from their once beloved leaders, turned either to Pasqua and his “souverainists” who are already touring France to build a new party, or to the “hunters” who denounce the attacks of the Brussels commission against their privileges and managed to secure six seats at the Euro-Parliament. Never has the opposition been so divided. Its hopes of preventing Lionel Jospin from being elected president of the Republic in 2002 look rather faint . . .
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