PARIS — Not so long ago, a majority of the EU members had leftist governments. Most have since shifted to the right, starting with Spain followed by Austria, Portugal, Italy, Denmark and, on May 16, the Netherlands — despite very low unemployment figures under the Socialist Cabinet.
The latest polls indicate that Germany, where the number of jobless is highest, may see a similar outcome when it goes to the polls Sept. 22. The only recent electoral success that a European socialist party can claim has been in Hungary.
French Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin ended his political career after his brutal setback April 21 in the first round of the presidential election. Will the French reverse the trend on June 9 and 16 when they pick deputies for the the National Assembly?
Although British Prime Minister Tony Blair has never looked more firm in the saddle, can one still call him a leftist when his “New Labour” has so little in common with the old one? As the London Economist recently wrote, “He has abandoned socialism, befriended business and promised not to squeeze the rich . . . broken the old relationship between Labour and the interests it was created to represent.”
Jacques Chirac was re-elected French president by a landslide May 5 because he strongly repelled any idea of cooperating with far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who to everybody’s surprise, had come in second during the first round. Since no candidate of the left made it to the second round, leftist leaders urged supporters to vote for Chirac. Otherwise, the president, who had gotten less then 20 percent in the first round, would never have managed to receive 82 percent in the second round.
Naturally, Chirac behaves as if he had already won the general election. His government doesn’t present itself as transitional but as having a “mission.” To make things as clear as possible, he picked a member of the Senate for prime minister — a man whose name had been simply ignored by a huge majority of the French, who has regional rather than national links and who doesn’t seem to have made great efforts to obtain the office.
Didn’t Chirac say publicly a few months ago that the prime minister’s post is really “the worst job . . . one you must not wish on your friends . . . a job of fireman . . . for which I don’t have particular esteem!” His pick of a rather modest man for the post means clearly that Chirac has decided to be No. 1 and that the prime minister will be an aide rather than head of an autonomous power. That’s the way things worked in the time of former President Charles de Gaulle.
Unfortunately, Chirac isn’t de Gaulle: Not only has Chirac been touched by various scandals, but he lacks vision and changes his mind too easily. That’s why he always felt the need to rely on one or two close advisers. For the time being, this role is filled by former Prime Minister Alain Juppe, the brightest personality on the right, who clearly dreams of succeeding him.
Most of Chirac’s new ministers have never belonged to a government before. The head of the economy department is not as bright a civil servant as the previous one, but is chairman of a great private industrial group. The people in charge of culture, education and health are well-known specialists without party affiliation. A young lady of Algerian origin has been given the environment ministry. Nicolas Sarkozy, a very dedicated young Gaullist is in charge of security problems.
The nomination of Michele Alliot-Marie as defense minister appears strange at first sight. She previously chaired Chirac’s former party, which has now given way to a “union for the presidential majority,” aiming to rally all supporters of the president. Since she previously opposed the creation of this union, it’s likely that she has been given this new job to clear the way for the union. Whether the military will appreciate this is another question.
Will this team win the election? Probably. The left has not yet recovered from its defeat in the first round of the presidential election. It lacks a charismatic leader.
Taking account of the thrust of the Trotskyites, the Socialists have felt compelled to give a more leftist touch to their program. Their Communist allies, who won a ridiculous 3.4 percent of the April 21 vote, will nevertheless present more than 500 candidates. The Trotskyites will be present in 400 constituencies, as will former Home Minister Jean Pierre Chevenement, who still believes he is France’s savior despite his small score in the presidential election.
These divisions have every chance of weakening the left just as the right looks more united. And many people will hesitate to vote for what would necessarily lead to a new “cohabitation” between the president and prime minister.
The remains of Le Pen’s supporters, whose main enemy is undoubtedly Chirac, will do anything to help the left. But what would it mean for the left to obtain victory under these conditions? There is little doubt that whatever the wishes of Le Pen — and of Chirac — a number of local agreements will be struck between the right and the far-right for the runoff.
A win for the right won’t be easy. Communist and Trotskyites intend to look for a third round in the street, meaning that many strikes would take place to support the many wage claims already formulated. Add to that Chirac’s announcement of an annual 5 percent reduction in the income tax — enough to seriously aggravate a budgetary deficit that is already too high.
At the EU summit in Barcelona not long ago, the same Chirac had sworn — with Jospin — that this deficit would not be aggravated. Now he tries to convince the European Commission that such a commitment can wait two years or so. This is absolutely contrary to the “stability pact” signed by the 12 countries that have adopted the euro. Sanctions have been announced by the European Union against violators of the agreement. How Chirac plans to overcome the problem is far from obvious.
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