PARIS — Six months after last spring’s presidential and general elections, the French political landscape is undergoing a deep transformation:
(1) Foreign and defense policy aside, the political cohabitation that compelled President Jacques Chirac to leave much of the power to Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, a socialist with whom he had little in common, is over. Chirac has recovered all of the stature that former President Charles de Gaulle and the framers of the 1958 Constitution wanted the president of the republic to assume. No rivalry is conceivable between Chirac and the current prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who eschews any presidential ambition. And both men rank high in the polls at present.
(2) In compliance with Chirac’s wishes, most of the French conservative and moderate parties appear to have finally overcome century-long feuds involving rightists, centrists, pro- and anti-Gaullists, pro- and anti-Europeans, and so forth to merge into a single Union for a Popular Majority, which held its constitutive congress Nov. 17.
Chirac supported the candidacy of his former Gaullist prime minister, Alain Juppe, for party chairman. Although Juppe was elected by 79 percent of the registered militants, many members of the Union abstained from voting, thus showing their lack of enthusiasm for a man who, despite his cleverness, is unable to sufficiently conceal his disdain for those less gifted than himself. It’s no mystery that Juppe looks forward to becoming president at the end of Chirac’s term in 2007, but he already faces a formidable, although undeclared, challenger in the dynamic domestic affairs minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who, thanks to his apparently successful security policy, has become the most popular of French rightist politicians.
(3) The unification of the right, of course, leaves few changes for the left to make on the comeback trail. No doubt a similar unification of the left would be welcomed by many people who cannot always see a clear justification for, and are discouraged by, internecine fighting. The quarrels often seem more personal than ideological. But a comeback by the left, which would make the French Assembly look much like the British and American lower houses, is not in the offing, as there are, oddly enough, few people on the left to advocate it.
In a way, it’s easy to understand. The Communists, without whom a victory of the left is unthinkable, have lost their chairman, Robert Hue, who resigned following the heavy losses in the June presidential election. Hue got only 3.7 percent of the votes, compared with the 27 percent the party received after World War II.
The Greens, whose secretary general also resigned, are once again in complete disarray. Socialist leader Francois Hollande is a man of good will, but clearly lacks the charisma necessary to lead the revival that the party badly needs.
For the time being, leftist divisions are deeper than ever, and one wonders amid the din of spokesmen for various “currents” whether they have anything in common. They all look to the 2007 presidential election, for which there are several almost-declared candidates.
(4) After the electoral victories of the right in May and June, there were widespread expectations of a “society third round” — labor strikes to make the new majority pay a heavy price — sooner or later. Various indicators supported this view, including the slowdown in industrial growth, rising unemployment, stock-market gloom, increasing social security deficit and the inability of successive governments to face the looming crisis in the retirement-pension system.
It should be no wonder then that two major conflicts have taken place recently: between farmers and commercial centers accused of unduly raising retail prices, and between truck owners and drivers asking for higher wages. In both cases, strikers threatened to block roads. Such demonstrations have taken place in the past, the last one in 1995, when Juppe paralyzed the French road network for 12 days. A repeat of this ordeal was feared, but in both cases Raffarin and his government found ways to deal quickly with the challenge.
First, they convinced trade center bosses to increase the prices paid to farmers, who responded by immediately halting their move. Then a deal was concluded between the truck owners and two drivers’ unions, who were promised a 14 percent rise in wages over three years. Although some 30 road barricades were set up when other more powerful truck-driver unions refused to sign, Home Minister Sarkozy made clear that blockades would not be tolerated and that police would withdraw the licenses of drivers who tried to enforce them. In times past, a lot of drivers would have ignored such a warning; this time the drivers clearly feared for their jobs and dismantled the barriers.
The unrest has continued. Tens of thousands of Air France employees, air traffic controllers, national railway and local transportation workers, employees of state-owned utility companies and civil servants from various fields demonstrated in Paris and other large cities to defend their status, which they saw as threatened by the march of privatization.
Many workers, especially in the transportation sector, went on strike. The socialists sensed an opportunity: Three members of the former Jospin government sought to join the march in Paris, but they were rather brutally expelled by the demonstrators, whose critiques were addressed to the parliamentary left as well as to the majority.
It looks as if we are back to the long period when divisions of the left were the main source of strength for the right. It is symbolic that Economy Minister Francis Mer did not hesitate to sell the state’s remaining assets in a major French bank two days ahead of demonstrations aimed at defending the public sector.
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