The resurgence of the French right is complete. Conservatives won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections held last weekend; coming on the heels of President Jacques Chirac’s re-election in early May, the right now has a chance to rule unconstrained. The victory is tainted, however, by massive abstentions among voters. The new government’s greatest challenge is to end the malaise that produced that apathy. Unfortunately, it seems that Mr. Chirac — as well as other members of the political elite — is responsible for the disgust felt by French voters.
The results herald a return to mainstream voting by the French public. The right’s win marks the end of the five-year period of “cohabitation,” during which a conservative president shared duties with a socialist prime minister. There were fears that this situation would produce policy gridlock, but Prime Minister Lionel Jospin actually presided over a period of French economic rejuvenation and growth. He certainly did not deserve the drubbing he was handed in the first round of presidential balloting this spring. That shock — coming third behind extreme rightwing candidate Jean Marie Le Pen — forced the prime minister to announce his retirement from politics and foreshadowed the outcome of last week’s vote. For once, the pundits were correct.
In last weekend’s ballot, conservative parties won 399 of the 577 seats in the National Assembly. Socialists claimed 141 seats, down from their pre-election strength of 250. The rest of the seats were claimed by fringe parties, mostly of the left. The National Front, which is headed by Mr. Le Pen, was shut out.
There were concerns that the protest vote — which propelled Mr. Le Pen into the presidential runoff — would once again prevail. The victory of a mainstream party is a sign that French voters have returned to their senses. But if the ballots that were cast are reassuring, there is every reason to be worried about those that were not: It is estimated that 39 percent of voters chose not to go to the polls, a record for the Fifth Republic. The first round of the presidential ballot had an equally high number of abstentions.
The message is clear. French voters have been turned off by political leaders. Only after the country was humiliated internationally — Mr. Le Pen’s showing marked the first time that a far-right leader has contested the leadership of a European country since World War II — did citizens muster the energy to vote. Mr. Chirac deserves some of the blame. He has been accused of being more interested in reigning than governing. He has been ensnared in a series of funding scandals and has clung to presidential immunity to block investigation of his actions. Even if the president can continue to dodge responsibility for those actions, he will have no such luxury in policy matters. The results of the parliamentary elections put power in the hands of the conservatives and Mr. Chirac. There is no longer an excuse for inaction or dodging blame when things go wrong.
Immediately after the vote, Mr. Chirac confirmed that Mr. Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who headed the caretaker government following Mr. Jospin’s resignation, would continue as prime minister. Mr. Raffarin promised quick action on the president’s campaign pledges: a law-and-order campaign, probusiness reforms that would include a 30 percent cut in tax on personal and corporate income, an easing of labor regulations and an overhaul of the pension system. The latter is expected to be especially difficult: French workers have a history of activism. The last attempt to reform the pension system triggered general strikes by public-sector employees.
The first test will come over the minimum wage, which is adjusted for inflation in July. New governments have often rewarded workers with a little more than the actual inflation level; moreover, the promise of an income-tax cut would not affect most workers, who earn less than the minimum level of income necessary to qualify for the cut. Since the tax pledge is seen as a handout to the rich, a commensurate increase in the minimum wage is expected. But that move would anger businesses that expect Mr. Chirac and Mr. Raffarin to be more sympathetic to their concerns.
That battle will be the first of many for the new government. They will be contested within France and within Europe: There is concern that Mr. Chirac’s plans could prevent France from balancing the budget as promised — and as required by the European Union. But the real challenge is restoring credibility with the voting public.
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