PARIS — Created 43 years ago by Gen. Charles de Gaulle, France’s Fifth Republic has had 14 prime ministers but only five presidents. Most of these premiers have harbored an ambition to become head of state, but only two of them managed to fulfill this dream. Will Lionel Jospin be the third?
There was a time, at the end of the 1990s, when opinion polls showed Jospin as the nation’s favorite politician; nothing seemed to stand in the way of his highest ambitions. Today, however, nobody would risk a penny betting on his chances of attaining the presidency. While there’s no doubt he still treasures the idea of becoming president, it’s not surprising that he takes pains not to say a word about his intentions.
Why is it so difficult, when you have managed to be No. 2, to become No. 1? Some reasons can be attributed to the system of government, others are peculiar to the periods of cohabitation and yet others are determined by the social and/or political agitation of the moment.
* Systemic reasons: The 1958 French Constitution does not provide a clear definition of the respective powers of the president and the prime minister. While it is a presidential system in one sense, the prime minister is legally described as the “head of the government.”
Even when the two belong to the same political majority, they don’t necessarily share the same views on every issue. The president always manages to appear as if he is primarily concerned with the main issues of foreign and domestic policy. The premier, however, is held responsible for all the shortcomings of daily life. This is a particularly heavy burden in a country like France, where nearly everybody expects the state to solve his or her problems, and guarantees that the prime minister will have an exhausting schedule and no shortage of opportunities to be widely criticized — if not harshly attacked — by the public and media.
I have personally known all 14 prime ministers of the Fifth Republic. For the most part, meeting them while they were in office meant hearing more complaints and regrets than enthusiastic comments. This was particularly the case when they finally reached the conclusion that they didn’t stand much of a chance of attaining the presidency.
* The effects of cohabitation: Under de Gaulle, cohabitation was unthinkable. He led the state, and the prime minister was his chief of staff. If he lost a general election or a referendum, he would automatically resign, as happened in 1969.
Things changed in 1986 during the presidency of Francois Mitterrand. After the left was defeated in 1986, Mitterrand remained in office and Jacques Chirac became prime minister. Two years later, Mitterrand was re-elected by a huge majority, but he soon had to deal with a rightist majority in the assembly and, therefore, in the government.
The same thing happened under Chirac. Two years after winning the presidential election, Chirac threw caution to the winds and called a general election — only to see his friends lose. Though a Gaullist, he didn’t feel the need to resign, and instead made cohabitation an increasingly familiar feature of French political life.
Viewed from a long-term perspective, Chirac is clearly a winner. He has played no part in necessary but unpopular decisions the government has been forced to make, and does not hesitate to criticize government ministers.
Curiously, most French today are in favor of cohabitation. The most likely reason is that they trust neither the majority nor the opposition and feel the need for each side to act as a check on the other, as is done in the United States under its system of “checks and balances.” The closer Jospin and Chirac come to the elections, however, the more difficult the situation they face — especially the prime minister.
* Effects of social and political agitation: Jospin has been prime minister during a time of relative social calm, thanks to an improving economy and a drop in the unemployment rate. But he has also witnessed another phenomenon, one familiar to all companies that suddenly make profits after having lost money for years.
The unions and almost every other group, having decided that their lean times are over, have started pressing for higher wages, better working conditions and improved retirement conditions.
Needless to say, the effects of this and of labor cuts at big firms that have at the same time increased their payments to shareholders has been psychologically disastrous. Many strikes have taken place, affecting railways and city transportation and adding to the difficulties of life in a country already facing the consequences of endless rains and mad cow and foot-and-mouth diseases.
A year away from the presidential and general elections, this situation raises serious concerns for the government. The left, on which it relies, describes itself as “plural.” This means that in addition to the Socialist Party, there is the influence of the Greens and Communists, which has allegedly increased since the March local elections, to consider.
The power of the Greens is supposed to have increased as a result of gains made in the March local elections, while the influence of the Communists supposedly has grown following the loss of a number of traditional strongholds. The latter blames its losses on the presence of a Cabinet too deaf to hear workers’ claims.
Of course, Jospin and his ministers feel they must do something for all the people who face the threat of losing their jobs. But they know that France no longer lives in a world where economic and social problems can be dealt with on a national basis. Not only does the country share a common currency and a wide array of rules with the rest of the European Union, it also increasingly belongs to a global world where markets are dominated by a struggle between industrial and financial giants, and nothing matters more than the defense of their interests.
Jospin’s ambition, as stated in a recent TV interview, would be to “humanize globalization.” Considering that some of his ministers are far from sharing the same ideological values, and the existence of a rightist opposition that would do anything to make a comeback, the key question is whether Jospin can move far enough in that direction to convince a majority of voters he can attain this lofty goal.
This will call for an extraordinary ability to negotiate the land mines in his path. But Jospin must also be able to convince corporate bosses that their workers are worth more, and the workers that some of their claims are simply unaccepted.
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