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Europe: New French Government Seen As Moderate and Pro-EU

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 5 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - After four years of conservative rule, France has a new, Left government today. Compared to its recent predecessors, the Socialist-led coalition is younger, smaller and more domestic than foreign-policy oriented. It also contains more women than any other cabinet in the two centuries of the French Republic's existence.

Most analysts regard the government as moderate and largely pro-European Union because its major posts are occupied by men and women reflecting those two qualities. The new Foreign Minister, Hubert Vedrine, and his junior Minister for European Affairs, Pierre Moscovici, are known to be generally pro-EU, as is Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. Elizabeth Guigou, a former outspokenly pro-EU European-affairs minister, has been named Justice Minister in Jospin's Government. Still, her views on the Union will carry weight with the Premier and at cabinet meetings.

But the new government also includes Left independent and former Defense Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement -- named Interior Minister by Jospin -- plus two full ministers and one junior minister from the Communist Party, Jospin's major coalition partner. Both Chevenement and the Communists are strongly opposed to the European Monetary Union (EMU), due to get underway in 19 months, and to further internal integration of the Union.

Headed by Jospin, the government held its first meeting this morning, presided over by conservative President Jacques Chirac -- the man, ironically, responsible for its existence. It was Chirac who last month dissolved the four-year-old National Assembly, which had an 80-percent conservative majority, and called for parliamentary elections 10 months ahead of schedule.

At the time, Chirac said he was seeking to provide the nation with "a new elan" that would enable his Center-Right coalition to enact market and other important reforms to lead the nation into the 21st century. Instead, Chirac got a slap on the wrist -- some say in the face -- from the patently discontented French electorate. On Sunday (June 1), angry with the President for not having realized his 1995 campaign promises to reduce chronic French unemployment, the French voted the Left into power. Chirac and Jospin could share power -- in the French term, "cohabit" -- for the next five years, the National Assembly term that corresponds to the 2002 end of Chirac's seven-year mandate.

Earlier this week, Jospin pledged his government would be "streamlined," and its composition today shows that he kept his promise. The cabinet contains only 14 full ministers -- there were more than 25 in recent conservative governments -- and 12 junior ministers. Of the total of 26, eight are women, including Martine Aubry, the second-ranking (after Jospin himself) super-Minister for Employment and Social Solidarity. Aubry, minister for social affairs in a Socialist Government several years ago, is the daughter of Jacques Delors, former French Finance Minister and, for 10 years (1985-1995), the highly influential, federalist-inclined President of the EU's Executive Commission.

At this morning's meeting Aubry sat at Chirac's right, a place of honor. The President told Jospin's Government that he was confident, in Chirac's words, that the coming cohabitation would "proceed with dignity, with mutual respect and with constant concern for France's interests."

Since the start of the Fifth Republic four decades ago, France has twice before had cohabitation governments, both of them under Chirac's predecessor, Socialist Francois Mitterrand. Chirac himself shared power with Mitterrand for two years beginning in 1986, only to lose to him in his first run at the presidency in 1988. Their relation was hardly one of "mutual respect," since Mitterrand, known as the "old fox" of French politics, outmaneuvered. manipulated and even humiliated Chirac -- a big factor in his 1988 presidential-election defeat. Edouard Balladur, like Chirac a Gaullist, cohabited with Mitterrand, then mortally ill with prostate cancer, from 1993 to 1995 on much better terms.

Mitterrand died early last year, leaving behind him a mixed record of first doctrinaire Socialist then market-oriented economic policies, many pro-EU achievements -- including an excellent working relation with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl -- and numerous political scandals among his closest associates. Jospin had been wise enough to take his distances from Mitterrand years before, which is one major areason he was able to take control of the Socialist Party after Mitterrand's demise and able to become premier today.

This is the first time a cohabitation is taking place with a President of the Right and a Premier of the Left, and the first time as well the two are likely to share power for more than 24 months. Jospin's decisions on his foreign and defense ministers, both of whom are not major political figures, seem to show that he will respect -- or at least seek to give the impression of respecting -- the Chirac's traditional prerogatives in what is called the President's "special domain" of foreign and security affairs.

Hubert Vedrine, a former diplomat who served first as Mitterrand's spokesman and then as his chief aide at the presidential Elysee Palace, is not likely to challenge Chirac's primacy in foreign affairs from his new post as head of the Quai d'Orsay. Vedrine is known to have good working relations with senior aides to German Chancellor Kohl, with whom he dealt extensively while at Mitterrand's Elysee, which could help repair what is today a clearly damaged Franco-German partnership within the EU. And Jospin's Defense Minister chief, Alain Richard, is a virtually unknown financial expert with little military expertise. Richard's appointment suggests that he will deal mostly with France's huge military budget and leave Chirac -- and, perhaps to some extent, Jospin -- to set strategic policy.

The presence of three Communists in France's Government -- as ministers of transport, tourism and sport -- would have set off alarm bells among its NATO allies as recently as 10 years ago. But today's French Communist Party (PCF in the French acronym) is led by Robert Hue, who took over from the ailing and aging hard-line PCF leader Georges Marchais in 1994. Since then, Hue has turned the Communists into a part of the French political establishment --so much so that remaining hard-liners within the PCF accuse him of being what they call "bourgeois." Hue's electoral alliance with Jospin paid off handsomely, with the Communists gaining 38 parliamentary seats and, in effect, holding the balance of power within the Socialist-led coalition.

Sooner or later -- probably sooner rather than later -- Chirac and Jospin will find themselves at loggerheads over domestic issues that impinge on the President's special foreign-policy and security domain. The first conflict will probably come within days. France must decide quickly whether to meet the strict economic criteria for joining the EU's Monetary Union in early 1999, as Chirac has promised, or to concentrate on the creation of new jobs, which Jospin has pledged will be his first priority. If Jospin is to realize his pledge, it will inevitably entail more government spending, thereby reducing Paris' chances of meeting the tough EMU entry standards.

The two men also have to find some common position before they both attend a critical EU summit meeting Amsterdam the week after next. The two-day meeting is charged with approving basic institutional changes before the Union's planned expansion to Central and Eastern Europe early in the next century. If Chirac and Jospin can't get their act together before Amsterdam, it will not contribute to the summit's success. And a setback in Amsterdam could delay the start of membership negotiations with some or all of the 10 Central and East European candidate states, promised by the EU for early next year. Whenever and with whomever they start, those talks will take years to conclude.

That's one major reason the East has a direct interest in the Chirac-Jospin cohabitation getting off to a good start. Will it? No-one -- most of all, perhaps, the two men themselves -- really knows the answer yet. For, despite Chirac's conciliatory remarks to the new Left government today, it's still far from sure that his power-sharing with Jospin will work to the advantage or disadvantage of France, the EU and the 10 Eastern nations seeking the earliest possible entry into the Union.