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Europe: Why Chirac Called Early French Elections -- An Analysis

Prague, 22 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - In a national television address last night, President Jacques Chirac announced his decision to dissolve France's National Assembly and schedule general elections -- which were due early next year -- in five weeks' time.

The brief (11 minutes) conversational-style talk was delivered persuasively and with apparent conviction. It came, however, after a fortnight of carefully calculated government leaks to the media -- a classic case of what the French call "Intox."

Chirac's announcement, therefore, came as a surprise to virtually no one. The well-oiled machinery had already been put in place for holding snap two-round parliamentary elections on May 25 and June 1. Today, as the machinery began to function, the National Assembly was officially dissolved. At the same time, Chirac's conservative coalition of his own Gaullist and other Center-Right parties began tuning up their campaign. And the opposition Socialist and Communist parties -- as well as the extreme-Right National Front -- sought to recover their equilibrium after having shown strong signs of being caught off balance by Chirac's tactical initiative.

But what was a bit surprising -- and far less convincing -- was Chirac's attempt to justify his electoral tactics by what the French call "raisons d'etat," reasons of state. He cited two main reasons, one having to do with France proper, the other with France's roles in the 15-nation European Union and in the transatlantic NATO alliance of 16 countries.

Chirac declared that France needs what he called "a fresh impetus" to continue his program of domestic reforms aimed at cutting public spending, taxes and heavy social security charges. He said a quick election would give "our people back the right to speak on the scope and speed of changes to be carried out in the next five years" (the legislative term of office).

Even more important, Chirac cited coming reforms in the EU and NATO, both of which are planning expansions to Central and Eastern Europe in the years to come. He called the French people's support for these reforms "essential," thereby turning the newly scheduled elections into a referendum on EU and NATO reforms, with Chirac -- whose attitude toward both institutions in the past was at best lukewarm -- now leading the pro-reform group.

As arguments for calling early elections, Chirac's reasons were not compelling. Interviewed on TV after Chirac's talk, the editors of France's two most important newspapers, the Left-of-Center "Le Monde" and the conservative "Le Figaro" -- Jean-Marie Colombani and Franz-Olivier Giesbert, respectively -- found themselves in rare full agreement. Both journalists dismissed Chirac's "raisons d'etat" as so much political wind. Both said that his decision to call early elections was a brilliant partisan political tactic that was nevertheless quite risky.

Why else, both editors -- and others -- asked, would a conservative French president, backed today by an 80 percent Center-Right parliamentary majority, opt for a quick election? His reasons, they -- and others -- said, were clearly partisan political. But as such, they could end up saving Chirac's political life -- or, if the risk proves to be the reality, perhaps ending it.

After two year in office, the President and his fellow Gaullist, Prime Minister Alain Juppe, have broken French records for unpopularity. Their huge parliamentary majority displays less and less unity. And, as France tries desperately to meet the stiff economic criteria for joining the coming EU monetary union, even greater government austerity programs are projected over the next 12 months.

Add to that mix the fact that prospects for the elections that had been due in March of next year were not good. But recent polls showed that the conservatives stood a good chance of winning a snap election, although not with a four-fifths majority this time. So, Chirac clearly reasoned, why not go for it now, and have a relatively undisturbed final five years of his presidential term?

The risk lies in the same polls' indications that four out 10 French voters have not yet made up their minds how they will mark their ballots next month. In a country with an escalating unemployment rate -- now close to 13 percent -- and only slight economic growth, social unrest has become a fact of daily life, and fear of what is euphemistically called a "social explosion" a collective nightmare. With an electorate as volatile as the French clearly is today, anything is possible. That "anything" includes a much-feared surge in support for the extremist National Front, which has taken over the waning French Communist Party's old role as a collector of protest votes.

Chirac has shown himself to be a political gambler throughout his three decades in political life. Yesterday, he made another bet -- this one, "quitte ou double," double or nothing. Chirac couldn't say that in his talk last night, however. To speak the truth would have increased the odds against him.