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PARIS — When Lionel Jospin was appointed prime minister of France in June 1997, there were not many people willing to bet on his longevity in office. The “plural left” majority on which he had to rely looked too divided on most issues, from Europe to immigration, to enable him — or so it seemed at first — to come up with solutions to the worrying economic situation he had inherited. He also lacked the broad electoral basis without which no government can survive for long: In many French constituencies, the left had won only because the extreme-right National Front put the left’s candidate on the second ballot in order to outflank its archenemy, the traditional right. The rupture between NF leader Jean-Marie le Pen and his first deputy, Bruno Megret, however, has changed this picture.

Why is it then that the left has not only stayed high in the polls for months now, but is likely to be still in power when, in just over two years time, presidential and general elections are held? How has it happened that, despite the continuing popularity of President Jacques Chirac, who appears determined to run again, most forecasters think he could very well be defeated by Jospin, if the latter decides to run himself (as seems likely)? There are several explanations:

* The improved economic situation: Unemployment is steadily dropping, sales are booming in many fields, from cars to cellular phones, and housing prices are jumping. Stocks are reaching unprecedented levels. The result is a large increase in revenue, making it possible to seriously reduce the budget deficit and the public debt. Polls show that the French are more optimistic today than they have been in years. Of course, credit for this recovery goes first of all to the persisting U.S. wave of prosperity, and most European countries present the same picture. But when things go better, it’s usual to give credit for it to the government of the moment, even if, in France as in the United States, it would be only fair to admit that the drastic steps taken by its predecessors have contributed as much to present growth as its own decisions.

* The right is more divided than ever: Unable to appoint a successor to Nicolas Sarkozy, who resigned from the chairmanship of the allegedly Gaullist “Rally for the Republic” (RPR), that body’s central committee has organized a vote among its members to designate someone: No less than five candidates are running. The mayor or Paris, Jean Tiberi, has been bluntly requested not to seek a new mandate, due to the legal questions in which he and his wife are embroiled. Nobody, in fact, can speak today for the party that has long been the cornerstone of the Republic. No wonder many of its most militant members are leaving it for the “Rally for France” (RPF), created by former Home Minister Charles Pasqua. Pasqua, who is defined by his violent opposition to European federalism and U.S. dominance in a globalized world, styles himself the true standard-bearer of the Gaullist tradition.

* Approach to the euro: more precisely, the way Jospin has been able — in conjunction with Chirac and thanks to the improvement in the economy — to match the conditions set by the European Union for shifting to the euro. A former diplomat himself, Jospin showed his diplomatic gifts in this matter, staying cool and keeping his language moderate, though he has been known to use strong language on occasion. Born a Protestant, even if he no longer practices any religion, he looks like a Swedish reverend and has no trouble convincing people of the strength of his belief in moral values. Overall, however, he’s a pragmatist, who has taken the measure of the distance between socialist dogmas and the realities of world capitalism. Not only has his government privatized many more public firms than any of its three rightwing predecessors, but Jospin openly supports the current wave of mergers, provided they present a French or European face.

* Appeasement of the left: Jospin has also succeeded in appeasing his partners on the “plural left,” whose ballots he needs to proceed with policies that often contradict their ideals. Among them, of course, are the Communists. It is true that today’s French Communist Party is only a shadow of what it was when millions of citizens lived in the expectation of a Soviet-led world revolution. The remaining militants have lost their illusions; many of them are highly critical of their leadership, and various trends are emerging within the framework of the once-disciplined party. But all the militants converge in their distrust of capitalism and of the U.S. They were very angry, for instance, when the government did nothing to prevent Michelin from simultaneously announcing unprecedented profits and the cutting of 7,000 jobs. Hence the demonstration of Oct. 15, which was essentially aimed at reminding Jospin that his Cabinet is supposed to follow a leftist line.

The CP wasn’t the only sponsor of the demonstration, even if the CGT, France’s main union and hitherto part of the communist machine, decided to remain aloof this time. The extreme left, which gained ground at the last European election, participated for the first time in a joint action with the communists, long considered traitors. The Greens were there, too. Altogether some 50,000 people from all over France marched in the streets of Paris. A few days earlier, the employers’ union had managed to gather half that number to protest against the 35-hour workweek instituted by the government, and the communist leadership had been concerned it would not attract so many. It decided, therefore, that the Oct. 15 demonstration was a big success — which is ridiculous when you recall that Communist meetings used to be able to attract hundreds of thousands of participants. Still, it was apparently enough to ease the Communists’ blues for the time being.

It is doubtful whether the party will overcome its present weakness soon — or ever. And it is well aware that it needs the alliance with the socialists to remain part of the political scene. A bigger long-term worry for Jospin could be the attitude of the Greens, who did better than the Communists at the last European elections, took part in the Oct. 15 demonstration and have some very ambitious leaders. They obviously appeal more to young people than a socialist party whose links to the left are appearing more and more tenuous.

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