PARIS — With a growth rate of 2.4 percent, France’s performance was a bit higher than the euro-zone’s average 1.8 percent but not enough to dispel the gloom that presently characterizes the national mood. Unemployment remains at 9.9 percent, close to the Belgian, German and Spanish figures, and far higher than the British number.
Some young French people don’t even try to look for a job, and many over 50 fear they will lose theirs. A dramatic rise in housing prices has compelled many middle-class families to move from big cities to outlying areas, but now they find themselves spending great amounts of time, money and patience to commute to work by rail or car.
In the past, French President Jacques Chirac repeatedly promised that he would reduce taxes. But last year they increased substantially. From natural gas and telephone to postal rates and rail, taxes on public services have risen faster than wages. The same can be said for food and fuel prices.
French workers have every reason to demand improvement in the situation. They now have to work more to qualify for a retirement pension; the cost of Medicare rose Jan. 1; and the viability of the 35-hour work week initiated by former Socialist President Lionel Jospin is now increasingly called into question.
In spite of the trouble caused to the average citizen, the strikes that have taken place in public services are supported by 65 percent of the public, according to a major polling institute. A large majority of those polled say they are ready to go on strike themselves, to take part in demonstrations or to support the actions of other workers.
This is not good news for Chirac, even if — thanks to his endless efforts to appease the discontented public and the role he plays on the world stage — he manages to keep his approval rating above 50 percent. The popularity of his prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, is far lower, and Raffarin is expected to quit before or soon after a referendum takes place in spring on the draft treaty establishing a European constitution.
The polls forecast a large “yes” victory, in part due to a decision by the Socialist Party to support the treaty. But the precedent of the Maastricht Treaty, which passed in September 1992 with a mere 51.01 percent of the vote despite predictions of a much higher margin, has raised the fear that many voters may use the referendum as an opportunity to express their frustration with current conditions by abstaining or by voting no.
The text of the European draft constitution is too long and too juridical to raise voter enthusiasm, and everybody can understand that the European Union’s enlargement has diminished France’s weight in EU decision-making.
With German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder opting to follow a policy of economic and social rigor based on Britain’s example and Chirac refraining from doing so due to worker discontent, the oft-celebrated “Franco-German engine” is unlikely to play the same role driving the newly enlarged EU as it did when it had only 15 members.
In addition, the support Chirac gave to Turkey’s EU candidacy, despite the hostility of two-thirds of his fellow citizens, doesn’t help the yes-backers.
The outcome of the vote will also be influenced by the French presidential election scheduled in two years. Will Chirac — who will by then be 74 — choose to run? There are several reasons why he might. First, he might find retired life extremely boring. Second, once out of office he could face judiciary action for the liberties he seems to have taken with public money in the past. Third, and most important, he seems determined to close the door of the Elysee Palace to his outspoken challenger, former Finance Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.
Sarkozy, now chairman of the presidential party UMP (Union for a Popular Movement), not only opposes Turkey’s EU application but openly supports, in economic and social matters, a line much closer to that espoused by neoliberal British Prime Minister Tony Blair. He also advocates a detente in Paris’ rocky relationship with Washington.
Simply put, Sarkozy speaks the kind of language many voters on the right like to hear. Remembering the efficiency of his security policy when he was home minister, they are ready to trust his judgment more than that of most of his fellow politicians, many of whom appear to not truly believe in what they say.
Is this support enough for Sarkozy to become president? Will his burning ambitions expose him to some major blunder? Will Chirac’s divided house stand? These questions and more will be answered in due time.
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