PARIS — A year before the 2002 general and presidential elections, the results of the municipal and local elections that took place the last two Sundays represent a major development in French politics. They will not ease the relationship between President Jacques Chirac and his likely rival next year, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. Nor will they facilitate relations between the various factions of the right or the various components of the “plural left.”
The polls had forecast a “pink wave,” a victory of the left. If there was a wave, it’s a blue one, since nationwide the right managed to win more votes than did the left. Despite the split between its two leaders, the far right managed to keep — and strengthen its grip — on all but one of its fortresses in the south. Some 40 towns shifted from left to right; seven took the opposite course.
The Communist Party registered a historic setback, losing Nimes, the only city of 100,000 inhabitants in which it was still in charge, and it lost a lot of ground in the industrial suburbs. Five Cabinet ministers who, against the prime minister’s advice decided to run, were severely defeated.
The left’s spectacular victories in Paris, where it hasn’t won for nearly a century, and in Lyons, the third largest city in France, compensate for the lost ground. But in those cases, too, the right won more ballots than the left. (It’s only due to a very complicated representation system that the left claimed a majority of seats.) It goes without saying that left’s victory is due first of all to the deep divisions in the right.
No doubt these divisions represent a personal setback for Chirac. In Paris, he thought that the right would improve its chances by supporting a new candidate for mayor — Philippe Seguin — in place of incumbent Jean Tiberi, who has been more or less implicated in various scandals. But Tiberi proved to be a first-class fighter, and refused to retire. Having won 13.92 percent of the ballots in the first round, he vainly asked in the second to fuse his own candidates and those of Seguin.
In Lyons, the situation was quite different. Charles Millon, a former defense minister and president of the Rhone-Alps region who had been expelled from his centrist party two years ago for having accepted the support of the extreme right, made an unexpected comeback in the first round. Chirac pressed his friends to forget the past and make a pact with him. But a number of centrists refused to follow his lead and chose not to take part in the second ballot, or even to vote for the left. This is how the right, despite winning 55 percent of the votes in the first ballot, lost control of the third city of France.
In these circumstances, it would be surprising if the internal quarrels of the right were to disappear overnight. But it would be a mistake for Jospin and the Socialists to let their victory in Paris and in Lyons overshadow their many setbacks in provincial France.
As centrist leader Francois Bayrou said before the second round, “there are two Frances: There’s Paris, then there’s another France. . .” He could have added that the other France is fed up with Paris, which ignores many its problems.
This is not new. French history bears many echoes of the struggle between the cultural, economic and administrative elite that lives in Paris and those who feel ignored if not despised, by this same elite. Given problems such as immigration, growing insecurity in towns and the threats facing farmers, whose cattle are being slaughtered because of the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, it is no wonder that the split between Paris and the rest of the country is growing.
Jospin is a product of the National School for Administration, as are so many other members of the Parisian elite. He was relying on economic growth, falling unemployment and his rise in opinion polls to be reflected in the ballot box. Before next year’s election, he must reflect on his country’s future.
An especially interesting phenomenon are the abstentions in the vote. A growing number of youth decided not to take part because no one in the candidates lists and nothing in their programs appealed to them. They would probably be ready to vote for a left more worthy of the name; the progress of the Greens and the “new left” lists in various regions is, in this light, quite significant. But the young are less attracted to a more moderate leftist Cabinet, which looks more and more at ease with big money and large fortunes. The neat victory in Belfort of Jean-Pierre Chevenement, the leftist former home minister who resigned a few months ago to show his disagreements with the government, is therefore significant.
As such, it will be difficult for Chirac and Jospin not to give strong priority during the next 12 months to consolidating their own support. It won’t ease the strains of cohabitation, including those in foreign policy. Will they have the nerve and the intelligence required to avoid blunders without creating a sense of stalemate or paralysis? French politics will be very interesting in the near future.
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