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Europe: French Elections Favor Incumbent Conservatives

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 23 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - French voters will go to the polls Sunday in the first round of parliamentary elections that could give conservative President Jacques Chirac a like-minded Center-Right majority for five years -- or force him to share power with a Left-wing government.

That was the gamble that Chirac took a month ago when he dissolved the National Assembly, dominated by an 80 percent conservative majority for the past four years, and called for elections 10 months ahead of schedule. All of the most recent polls indicate Chirac stands a good chance of winning his gamble, although they also show that his majority in the 577-member Assembly could be reduced to about 50 seats (or 54.4 percent).

But there are two major wild cards in Chirac's poker game.

First, the same polls show that about one-third of France's 40 million voters are so unenthusiastic about the election that they do not intend to vote at all, and many others say they are still undecided how they will vote. Oddly enough, however, most French men and women approved the idea of early elections -- probably because they saw it as offering a way out of the gloomy pessimism that has prevailed in the country for the past several years.

Second, France's extreme-Right National Front Party could attract enough of the country's traditional first-round protest vote, which for decades went to the Communist Party, to undermine the mainstream Center-Right in the election's second round a week from Sunday.

According to the polls, the Front itself is not expected to win any seats, but more than a hundred Front candidates are expected Sunday to win the 12.5 percent necessary to run in the second round. That could mean triangular battles -- Left, Center-Right and extreme-Right -- in which Front voters could determine the victor. Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen has called on his followers to vote for Left candidates in the second round in order to make things difficult for Chirac, but no one really knows how many of his followers will do so.

When he announced the snap elections on April 22, Chirac said he needed what he called a "new elan" to lead France into the single European Union currency due in 19 months. He also said he wanted to press ahead with gradual modernization of an economy in which the state accounts for half the country's production and a quarter of its workers. Both themes have played leading roles in the campaign headed by Chirac's fellow Gaullist, Premier Alain Juppe, whose failure to stem France's rising unemployment rate -- now almost 13 percent of the work-force -- has given him the lowest popularity ratings in recent French history.

Analysts say the President also sought to catch the opposition by surprise and deliberately set a short campaign punctuated by three long holiday weekends, major sports event and a heavy diplomatic calendar. More fundamentally, most analysts agree that what is really at stake is France's long-term future course: Will it remain the world's fourth-biggest exporter and a major player in the EU's drive to turn itself into an economic superpower with a more efficient single market? Or will the process break down, leaving France as a second-rate power in a world of growing economic alliances?

Both the Left and extreme-Right opposition parties were clearly caught off guard by Chirac's decision to call early elections. Both have since regrouped and made headway by insisting that the real reason for the snap election is Chirac's intention to impose greater austerity programs on the France in coming months so it can qualify next year for joining the EU's single currency, known as the "euro."

But Socialist Party leader Lionel Jospin, who would likely head the government if the Left were to win, made a major early error in criticizing the EU's criteria for joining the euro. Since then, Jospin has spent much of the campaign trying to climb of the hole he dug for himself and win back some of the charisma he showed in losing quite honorably to Chirac in the 1995 presidential election. He has also forged an electoral alliance with the declining Communist Party. But that might cost him as many votes as he hopes to gain: The Communists, like the National Front, are bitterly anti-EU and, particularly, anti-euro. Most French voters are neither.