French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin celebrated three years in office this week. It was a satisfying moment. The economy is rebounding, France’s international status is growing and the prime minister can entertain ambitions for the presidency. But much can change between now and the vote scheduled for 2002.
Mr. Jospin came to power in 1997, when President Jacques Chirac called a snap election. Mr. Chirac’s attempt to give his conservative party a majority in the National Assembly backfired, leaving the left and the Greens to form a government and putting Mr. Jospin in the prime minister’s office.
It has been an up and down period, but May was kind to the prime minister. Statistics released earlier this week showed the French unemployment rate cracking the psychologically important 10 percent mark for the first time in nine years. Inflation marked a 1.3 percent increase over the last 12 months. The social security system, which covers salaried workers, registered a surplus last year for the first time since 1985; a smaller surplus is projected for this year. Growth is forecast at between 3.4 percent and 3.8 percent this year. Not surprisingly, an opinion poll showed Mr. Jospin to be the most popular prime minister in modern French history at this point in his term.
The prime minister cannot afford to bask in that popularity. Unemployment has fallen to 9.8 percent, but it is still high among industrial countries. Economists expect inflationary pressures to pick up if the jobless rate falls below 9 percent. If the global economy slows down as expected, France will feel it. And continued growth will require more restructuring, which risks antagonizing Mr. Jospin’s coalition partners on the left.
And even though Mr. Jospin’s popularity is rising, it is still surpassed by that of Mr. Chirac. Opinion polls show the gap between the two is closing, but the president would still win any direct vote between the two men. That will give the prime minister pause — next week, when the celebrations are over.
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