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France: Rift Between Chirac And Jospin Widens

Prague, 14 January 1997(RFE/RL) -- Confronted with intensifying problems with its chronically jobless adults and violently restless youth, France is now facing another big challenge. This one comes not from the country's under-privileged, under-aged or unemployed, but from its top leaders, conservative President Jacques Chirac and Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, whose job it is to deal collectively with such matters. Their sharing of executive power, which the French call political "cohabitation," is increasingly showing signs of uneasiness and strain, with predictably unhappy consequences for an already heavily stressed nation.

The growing split between the two men, who have been at least publicly polite to one another since Jospin became Prime Minister seven months ago, was confirmed early this week by Chirac himself. In New Year's remarks to journalists Monday (Jan. 12), the President made clear that in 1988 he intended to fulfill his constitutional role as the state's ultimate authority --"president of all the French," in his phrase. Chirac said pointedly that he would not hesitate to criticize Jospin's Left Government, which includes Communists and Greens as well as Socialists, when he saw need to do so.

Chirac did add a perfunctory postscript about not intervening in the Government's business --also proscribed in the four-decade-old Fifth Republic's Constitution. But his remarks amounted to a throwing down of the gauntlet to Jospin, whom he has several times indirectly criticized since last Spring's parliamentary elections, called by Chirac a year in advance, brought the Left to power. The two men have clashed openly more than a few times since then --so much so that one prominent Socialist (Jean-Christophe Cambadelis) earlier this month accused Chirac of acting, in his words, "less like a president (of all the people) than a leader of the opposition." But Chirac's remarks two days ago indicated he and Jospin are now set on a steady confrontation course when it comes to domestic matters, although the President insisted that, when it comes to foreign policy, "France speaks in Europe and in the world with only one voice."

Jospin is likely soon to reply publicly to the President's challenge, as he did on a few occasions last year. So irritated is the Prime Minister by Chirac's outspokenness at weekly meetings of the Government --conducted, again under the Constitution, by the President-- that he has taken not only to contradicting him at the Wednesday cabinet sessions. He has also made sure that word of the his tongue-lashings, supposedly confidential, quickly reached the news media.

Yet Chirac has in recent days intensified his combativeness. His comments to the press Monday were relatively mild compared to those he made over the weekend in his native Correze department, in central France. Speaking to farmers who for 35 years regularly elected him to the National Assembly, Chirac mocked Jospin's announced plans to legislate a 35- rather than 39-hour work week, with no cut in pay. The Socialist plan is intended to reduce the nation's high unemployment, officially pegged at 12.4 percent of the work force but in fact close to double that number. Chirac asked the farmers rhetorically: Can France afford to be the European Union country with the shortest work week?

Obviously pained by the President's new outspokenness, Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande himself asked rhetorically if Chirac would, in his words, "perhaps consider showing more restraint in his political remarks." But yesterday, faced not only by presidential but also employer opposition, Jospin declared he would not "force" on France a project for a 35-hour week due to be considered by Parliament early next month. Jospin said that "the reduction in the working week...will be negotiated among the social partners (that is, employers and unions as well as the Government)." He spoke after leaders of the nation's five major business organizations urged the Government to drop the idea, which they said would --in their words-- "destroy jobs rather than creating them, by damaging the competitiveness of French companies."

That the problem of jobs creation is no mere theoretical one was brought home to both Chirac and Jospin yesterday, when several thousand of France's seven million un- or under-employed took to the streets again in a second nationwide protest. After the first one last week, associations of the unemployed were recognized by the Government as official groups with which to negotiate on jobs --rather than with France's unions, which represent only nine percent of those with full-time work. The protests by the jobless are, according to recent public-opinion polls, supported by close to two-thirds of all French men and women.

Combating unemployment --the nation's biggest problem for more than a decade-- was Jospin's chief campaign promise last year, as it was Chirac's in the 1995 presidential elections (when he defeated Jospin). But neither politician has been able to reduce joblessness, which objective analysts say can only be achieved by restructuring the nation's welfare and unemployment-insurance programs as well by reducing social charges on employers. Politicians like Chirac and Jospin know that as well, but to say so publicly would amount to political suicide.

Instead, each blames the other's ideas and practices for the jobless problem. And the Chirac-Jospin warfare now seems likely to get much hotter before cooler heads persuade them to call at least a truce, if not make peace, for the country's benefit.