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Europe: French Left's Triumph Will Affect All Of Europe

Prague, 2 June 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The stunning triumph of the French Left in yesterday's run-off vote for the National Assembly will have immediate consequences throughout the 15-nation European Union -- and in Central and Eastern Europe as well.

That's because conservative Jacques Chirac's badly calculated gamble in calling general elections 10 months ahead of schedule will reduce the President's power for the remaining five years of his term by forcing him to share power with the Left. The Left's victory will also probably change prospects for the EU's planned monetary union and its expansion to the East.

The new Socialist-led coalition government, to be headed by party leader Lionel Jospin, that will take over later this week from the soundly trounced Center-Right will likely move quickly to modify Paris' stance on critical EU questions -- particularly the launching in 19 months of EMU (for European Monetary Union) and its single currency, the "euro."

For the 10 Central and East European candidate nations now seeking rapid entry into the EU, any delay in the creation of EMU (for European Monetary Union) could entail a deferral of the start of membership talks repeatedly promised to them for early next year by EU officials in Brussels. Were Jospin also to seek to change France's policy toward proposed basic changes in EU institutions, necessary before the Union can turn its attention Eastward, the effects would be even more strongly felt in the East.

Jospin's Socialists, who suffered their biggest defeat ever four years ago, made a extraordinary comeback yesterday, winning 252 seats in the 577-member assembly. That's almost five times as many as they held before Chirac, seeking what he called "a new elan" for his Center-Right majority, dissolved the old Assembly five weeks ago. But the Socialists fell 37 seats short of a parliamentary majority and will therefore be dependent not only on small Left parties (16 seats) and ecological groups (seven) but, most important, on the resurgent Communist Party, which garnered 39 seats.

Led by their soft-spoken leader Robert Hue, the Communists campaigned on a strongly anti-euro platform. Their resurgence owes much to attracting jobless voters who believed -- wrongly, according to economic analysts -- that the EU is responsible for two decades of high unemployment and many years of little economic growth in France. As the price for his party's support of the Socialists, Hue today demanded an easing of the EU's strict criteria for joining EMU in early 1999.

What's more, Jospin's own campaign statements indicated that he, too, would seek changes in EMU qualifications. Jospin promised to create 700,000 new jobs for young people (from 16 to 25 years of age) within the next 12 months, half of them in the public sector. He also pledged to reduce the work week from 39 to 35 hours without cutting salaries. To realize those promises, Jospin will have to increase state spending, thereby disqualifying France from joining EMU in the first wave -- unless the EU's 14 other members agree to change the criteria, which is fast becoming a real possibility.

The French Center-Right appears in total disarray after its biggest defeat in the four decades of the Fifth Republic. The conservatives won only 262 seats, not much more than half as many as they had held during the past four years. The result leaves few politicians in France today willing to defend austerity measures necessary for the nation joining EMU in the first wave of EU members in 1999. The electorate yesterday clearly told the political establishment it wanted jobs, especially for youngsters -- whose rate of unemployment is twice as high as the overall national rate of 12.8 percent -- not austerity and continuing high unemployment.

Plagued by high unemployment and a sluggish economy in his own country, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Government is now also seeking somehow to get around the standards laid down in the 1992 Maastricht Treaty that created a Union out of the former European Community. Last week, Kohl and his Finance Minister Theo Waigel got into an unprecedented open quarrel with the country's highly respected Bundesbank, which insists on maintaining the strict Maastricht criteria -- and thereby both the "Buba's" independence and that of the EU central bank to be created under EMU.

As a result, both the new French and the old German governments will probably either indulge extensively in what economists call "creative accounting" or push for changes in the euro-qualifying criteria that would make joining EMU a political rather than economic question. Many analysts now believe that the euro is in big trouble and could turn out to be a "soft" currency not nearly as credible to currency-market analysts, who will determine the new money's value, as the "hard" dollar with which it is intended to compete. Some analysts even predict that the EU will now be forced to put off the euro's birth by at least a year.

For the French, who call power-sharing between their President and their government "cohabitation," this will be the first time the chief executive is of the Right and the government of the Left. Chirac's predecessor, Socialist Francois Mitterrand, twice cohabited with hostile Center-Right governments, once from 1986 to 1988, when Chirac himself was Premier, and once from 1993 to 1995, when Edouard Balladur led the government. Jospin, however, could very well share power with Chirac through the year 2002.

No president in any other Western nation calling itself democratic -- including the U.S. -- has as much power as France's. The 1958 Constitution devised by Charles de Gaulle, Chirac's revered mentor, gives the chief executive the right to appoint the premier and name his ministers. (In 1986, Mitterrand rejected Chirac's initial nominees for foreign and defense ministers, and the premier was forced to back down and name new ministers.) He can dissolve parliament, as Chirac did last month, and if he wishes can do it a second time a year later -- unlikely now, after the rebuke the voters gave Chirac yesterday.

The President is also the head of France's armed forces and commander of its nuclear arsenal. He can call popular referendums and take what the constitution vaguely calls "measures demanded by circumstances" in the event of a national or international emergency. Although the constitution says the prime minister is responsible for national defense and that parliament must approve declarations of war, in practice it's the President who rules the foreign-policy roost. De Gaulle made foreign and defense questions what was called his "special domain," and all of his successors have claimed the same privilege. No Fifth-Republic government has ever challenged the claim.

The Chirac-Jospin cohabitation is likely to prove a difficult one because domestic issues like unemployment impinge on foreign-policy issues like EMU.

The two men fought a close race two years ago, with Chirac winning by 53 percent of the vote. Because both are known for their personal as well as political civility, whatever quarrels they have -- and they will have them -- are likely to be conducted in polite language. But Chirac suffered greatly from Mitterrand's domination and manipulation a decade ago, and could end up giving Jospin the same treatment.

In any case, France will not speak with one voice for the foreseeable future. That is bound to weaken its decades-long ties with Germany, the EU's biggest supporter, as well as with the Union in general. In sum, the eventual result of Chirac's snap election will probably be important changes across all of Europe.