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Western Press Review: Commentary Seeks Meanings In French, Czech Elections

  • Don Hill

Prague, 17 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Weekend parliamentary elections in which the French leaped right and the Czechs leaned left captured much of Western press comment this morning.

THE GUARDIAN:

Jon Henley's commentary from Paris in London's "The Guardian" says French President Jacques Chirac triumphed through political cunning and voter abhorrence of Jean-Marie Le Pen. Henley writes: "In the space of little more than seven weeks, Jacques Chirac has been transformed from perhaps the weakest president in the history of France's Fifth Republic to very probably the strongest."

The writer concludes: "Only one cloud looms on Mr. Chirac's horizon. He will have to be very careful about how he introduces his [campaign-promised] reforms. It was, after all, his hugely unpopular austerity program that in 1997 ended up -- after months of nationwide protests and strikes -- costing the center-right its majority and landing the president in a cohabitation."

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE:

An editorial in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" concurs: "After four elections in two months and 40 years in politics, Jacques Chirac emerges today more than ever as his own man. More than one commentator has remarked that he has that quality that Napoleon demanded of his generals: luck. To maintain it now he has a daunting task ahead -- to reform France's economy in the teeth of expected violence from radical unions. If he accomplishes that he will be remembered by history as more than lucky, but as a statesman."

The editorial says: "To succeed, President Chirac will most likely need a mixture of two, almost conflicting, qualities. He'll need to be stubborn, especially at times when popular support for reforms appears to wane. But he will also need to delegate power to his government and the new generation of politicians waiting to lead France in the new century."

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE:

Michael Gonzales, commenting in the same newspaper, takes an opposite perspective, focusing on the flaccidity of the French left rather than the vitality of the right. The commentator writes: "The French left stumbles today into the political wilderness wounded and leaderless, and with no answers to the political questions of the moment. There it will find its comrades from Italy, Spain and most of Europe, and soon perhaps the German ones will join them. Conventional wisdom has it that socialists have lost office in the past year because the European electorate is in a mood to 'throw the bums out.' But the problems are much deeper than that."

Gonzales goes on: "It is not incumbents who are endangered, but unreconstructed socialists. We know that because of the right-wing (and left-wing) parties that have been re-elected recently. Last month the Irish gave Fianna Fail an even stronger mandate to go on governing, and two years ago Spaniards gave the Partido Popular an outright majority. And Britons last year overwhelmingly re-elected New Labor. This last part is important as it contains the clue for how the left can return to power."

THE INDEPENDENT:

Britain's "The Independent," in an editorial also focuses more on Le Pen's loss than Chirac's win. The editorial says: "Amid much liberal angst about the rise of the extreme right across Europe, a sigh of relief emanated from the crowd when Mr. Le Pen failed to increase his vote at all in the second round and Jacques Chirac flattened him with more than 80 per cent of the vote. Now Mr. Le Pen's National Front has failed to make the slightest mark on the elections to the National Assembly and it would seem that the revival of the far-right, in France at least, has been squashed. There is room for liberal angst yet, however. While yesterday's results are encouraging, they should not lead to complacency."

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE:

"The Wall Street Journal Europe" connects the French outcome with that of the Czech. It says the votes may have been less a rightward lunge in France and a leftward tilt in the Czech Republic, but more a shrinking from nationalism in both cases. The editorial says: "If the traditional lines between left and right seem increasingly blurry in the European Union, look a bit further east."

The commentary continues: "The winner in this weekend's parliamentary elections in the Czech Republic promised tougher market reforms needed to prepare this former Soviet satellite for membership in the EU about two years from now. This winning party, the incumbent, ran on a four-year record of sweeping privatizations, particularly of banks, and rising foreign capital inflows that pulled the country out of recession."

It says also: "The losers this weekend were the pre-election favorites, at least until a few weeks ago. They warned about aggressive Germans, pushy foreign investors and pesky immigrants -- who, thus far in this relatively poor European country, mostly mean a handful of Vietnamese running popular outdoor food stalls in Prague. Their party leader, Vaclav Klaus, sounded increasingly skeptical of the EU."

DIE WELT:

"Die Welt" says in an editorial that the victory of the Czech Social Democrats will lead to a pro-European coalition that the Czechs' neighbors should welcome. The newspaper says: "Europe and Germany can breathe a sigh of relief."

FRANKFURTER RUNDSCHAU:

In the "Frankfurter Rundschau," commentator Ulrich Glauber forecasts difficulties ahead for the Czech Republic in maintaining a stable government. He says that a stable majority is threatened by a strengthened Communist representation.

LE MONDE:

From Paris, "Le Monde" comments on the French outcome: "Jacques Chirac is now ready to get down to the job. As the worthy pupil of Francois Mitterrand, he has succeeded in doing the most spectacular political pull-up one could possibly imagine. Five years after the risky and disastrous dissolution [of the National Assembly] in 1997, two months after getting the worst electoral result any incumbent president has ever scored, the head of state is now running a camp that has taken two-thirds of the 577 deputy seats. On June 16, the right indeed confirmed its June 9 upsurge. With 400 seats, it is certainly not a repetition of the 1993 big swing (when it seized 484 seats), but [the right] garnered one of the most overwhelming majority of seats of the Fifth Republic, something one could compare with its electoral success in the aftermath of May 1968, or the victory of the left in June 1981, in the wake of Mitterrand's first election to the Elysee Palace."

THE NEW YORK TIMES:

Choosing leadership in Afghanistan follows a tradition different from the polling of Western Europe. "The New York Times" comments in an editorial today on the Afghan process, centering on the grand council, or Loya Jirga, now meeting to select a transitional government. The newspaper says: "The Loya Jirga was not a democratically elected body. Roughly two-thirds of the delegates were chosen by local councils, with most of the other seats reserved for specific groups, like women."

The editorial continues: "The first challenge the new transitional government emerging from these sessions will face is enforcing its authority outside Kabul. That would have been easier had the United Nations expanded its international security force from the capital to the rest of the country."

It concludes: "America quickly turned away from the problems of a devastated Afghanistan after Soviet troops were driven out of the country more than a decade ago. [U.S.] President George W. Bush has pledged not to repeat that mistake. Helping rebuild a ruined nation may not be as politically appealing as ousting the Taliban, but it can help secure that victory for the future."

EURASIA REVIEW:

"Eurasia View," published by the Central Eurasia Project of the New York-based Open Society Institute, carries an analysis from Kabul by Helima Kazem. She writes that the formerly subjugated women of Afghanistan have found an unexpectedly influential voice in the Loya Jirga. The writer says: "One hundred sixty women, who would have been banned from appearing in public under the Taliban militia, have surprised most of the male delegates with their assertiveness, leadership and organization. [They] are helping enrich Afghan politics, not just helping advance women."

Kazem continues: "Some say women are able to voice their concerns freely because, for the most part, they are not tied to any political groups. They say their liberation from warlords and corrupt village commanders keeps them fair and unafraid."

Old problems linger, Kazem writes. She says that male delegates, even those who favor women's suffrage, are troubled by traditional values that require women to be chaperoned when in the company of unrelated men.

She writes: "Among the many questions confronting delegates at the Loya Jirga, this may be one of the most sensitive. But the women of the Loya Jirga say they can be political within their cultural and religious framework."

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