PARIS — Once again, some 150,000 people lined the Champs Elysees on July 14 to watch the Bastille Day parade. At noon, President Jacques Chirac received 6,000 guests at the traditional party held in the palace gardens. At 1 p.m., as he has always done since his first election in 1995, he gave an interview to three well-known TV journalists.
At that time nobody mentioned the attempt three hours earlier by Maxime Brunerie, a 25-year-old student, to kill the president with a 22-caliber rifle he had hidden in a guitar case. Brunerie approached the automobile in which Chirac was standing and fired at him. Luckily, spectators noticed what he was doing and took action, causing him to miss. Police then rapidly overpowered the would-be murderer and prevented him from committing suicide.
A worshipper of Hitler, Brunerie belonged to several extreme-rightist organizations, including one founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen’s former lieutenant, Bruno Megret. Although Brunerie had posted a message on the Net stating that on July 14 he would be the “man of the day in the media” and had told some friends he intended to murder the president, no one had taken him seriously. It is believed Brunerie, who is now undergoing a psychiatric evaluation, acted alone.
Other than the assassination attempt, France’s summer has been uneventful thus far. It is difficult to imagine that only two months ago the majority of the population felt obliged to mobilize against what they perceived to be an extreme-rightist threat, giving Chirac the support he needed to rise from a poor 19-percent showing in the first round of the presidential election to an unprecedented 82 percent in the second.
Having received the left’s backing in the second round, some thought Chirac would be at pains to alter his government’s agenda accordingly. But for the most part they were wrong, although the president did go ahead and appoint a few people with leftist connections.
This may be explained by the Socialist Party’s poor performance and the Gaullist Party’s overwhelming victory in the general elections. Having first served as Socialist President Francois Mitterrand’s prime minister and then experiencing long years of exhausting cohabitation with Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, it was obviously tempting for Chirac to seek to govern with a politically homogeneous team.
There’s nothing in the profile of the man Chirac has appointed to the premiership, 54-year-old Jean-Pierre Raffarin, that should concern him. The son of a local politician from the midwestern part of the country, Raffarin’s name has garnered little public attention. At most, the public felt reassured by the appointment of a regional politician so obviously alien to the usual battles for power — a man without declared enemies.
For Chirac, the main question is whether Raffarin is up to the exhausting task of mediating between the various departments and sharing among them the funds they need at a time when economic prospects are darkening and stock values are plunging.
Chirac won’t be making Raffarin’s job any easier if he sticks to his electoral commitments to reduce the income tax and spend more on fighting crime, hospitals and military expenditures.
On July 14, he added three more major programs to his agenda — policies to improve road security, step up cancer research and further integrate the disabled into society. And he has shown he will resist the massive reductions in manpower planned by a number of corporations in the face of increasingly worrying economic prospects.
Chirac knows that it would prove useless for him to have won two major national elections if events led to a “Socialist third round” in the fall once people realized that unemployment was rising and living standards were decreasing. He knows he must not forget that his dismal result in the first round of the presidential election means that the number of his true followers remains far from sufficient. He also knows it will be hard to convince his European partners to forgo implementing deep changes to the European Union’s “common agricultural policy,” of which France is one of the main beneficiaries.
To broaden his base of supporters, Chirac wants to appear much more open to Socialist concerns than many in a rightist majority government would be ready to accept. He also knows that the unprecedentedly high rate of abstention in the general elections means that the first instinct of French voters is to not trust those in power. He probably hopes to win their confidence through rapid results; hence, he is giving priority to the nation’s crime problems, the top concern of people.
For the time being, Chirac must be satisfied to see that 53 percent of the population, according to the last polls, have a “good opinion” of him. What he now has to do is to transform this “good opinion” into active support.
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