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Europe: French Prime Minister Wins Party's Confidence

Prague, 24 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Riding high in public-opinion polls and increasingly influential in the European Union, French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin won his own Socialist Party's consecration over the weekend.

It came at a party congress that enthusiastically endorsed Jospin's notion of a "pluralistic and realistic Left," overwhelmingly rejected its own radical minority's critique of the EU's coming single currency --the euro-- and gave a standing ovation to visiting Communist Party chief Robert Hue.

So buoyed was Jospin by the new unity and confidence shown by his party --for years, fractious and defeatist in attitude-- that for the first time since taking office in June he publicly criticized the man with whom he shares power in France, conservative President Jacques Chirac. In a closing speech yesterday to the congress, held in the rainy Atlantic port of Brest, Jospin recalled he had "for six months...made no comment on the other head of the executive branch." Then, with ironic relish, he turned an anti-Left remark made late last week by Chirac back on the chief of state.

At the EU's summit on unemployment in Luxembourg Friday, Chirac had warned West European leaders against what he called "the mirage of hazardous experiments." That was an implicit but unmistakable criticism of Jospin's espousal of a shortened work-week to create jobs, which Italy's Center-Left Government has since also endorsed. In Brest, Jospin told his fellow socialists mockingly: "Hazardous experiments don't just exist in economics. They can also be political. I recall (one such) hazardous experiment...When the mirage dissipated June 1, we found a Left majority in the National Assembly."

The Left triumphed in a sweep of legislative elections that Chirac had called more than a year before they were due in an effort to strengthen his Center-Right coalition, which already held an 80 percent parliamentary majority. Analysts at the time questioned Chirac's judgment, calling it "disastrous " and "political suicide."

With the critical support of 27 Communist deputies, the Greens and other Left groups, Jospin put together a government that contains three Communist and several other non-Socialist ministers. He has since benefited in part from an economic upswing and, in even greater part, from the contrast between his apparent candor and the perceived duplicity of his conservative predecessor, Alain Juppe. As a result, Jospin's popularity has risen steadily, with recent polls showing him with a 51 percent satisfaction rate -- rare for French premiers, who are usually the scapegoats for public dissatisfaction.

Early this month, Jospin emerged unscathed from his first big domestic crisis, a potentially crippling strike by French truck drivers. A year earlier, the truckers had humiliated Juppe in a 12-day walkout that hobbled the nation's economy, paralyzed its transportation system and turned many suffering citizens against the then conservative government. But with the aid of his Communist Transport Minister (Jean-Claude Gayssot), Jospin was able to satisfy the same truckers' demands in 96 hours, thereby adding to his popularity.

In the EU, where nine of 15 governments are currently either led by or dependent on the Left, Jospin has been a figure to be reckoned with virtually since taking office. At the Union's Amsterdam summit, only a month after his installation, he was able to fulfill two key campaign promises by forcing other governments, notably Germany's, to make concessions to an implicitly threatened French veto.

Jospin had campaigned for a greater effort to reduce unemployment: With an official 13 percent rate, and probably almost double that in reality, France has one of the highest jobless levels in the unemployment-plagued EU. He also campaigned against strict, German-imposed EU common-currency criteria that would have allowed only a small group of complying nations to join when the euro is launched in 13 months. At Amsterdam, he fulfilled both promises by making France's subscribing to the so-called stability pact for the euro contingent on holding a special summit on jobs and on an unacknowledged loosening of euro-joining standards.

There were two results, both of which benefited Jospin. First, 11 nations are now expected to join the single currency in January 1999. The four that won't are Britain, Denmark and Sweden, which have said they don't want to join immediately, and economically backward Greece, which no stretching of the standards can yet make eligible. Second, even though last week's EU jobs summit was egregiously lacking in concrete measures, it enabled Socialist ministers at Brest to quiet a Euro-skeptical 10 percent minority by boasting, in the phrase of one them (Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn), "We have started to re-orient Europe toward jobs."

The presence at the congress of Communist chief Hue, who has begun de-Stalinizing the party, cemented the growing alliance between him and Jospin. Hue told the Socialists that his party wants "to take part in anything that brings the pluralistic Left together" --and, he might have added, made his party respectable. Socialist Culture and Government spokeswoman Catherine Trautmann hailed what she called "the profound changes taking place in the Communist Party (as) a source of hope for the whole Left." Former Socialist leader Henri Emmanuelli said that if marriage between the two parties was not possible, they could at least set up house together.

Analysts say that Jospin's success so far has cleared the way for him to make a second try to win France's powerful presidency in 2002 --probably, but not certainly, against Chirac, to whom he narrowly lost two-and-a-half years ago. They note that the French Center-Right, after four years of running the government and last Spring's catastrophic election defeat, is now in faction-ridden shambles --precisely where the Left was in 1993. As for Jospin, who knows how impetuous Chirac can be, he is said to be preparing himself for an early presidential election.