Prague, 2 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Eight months after a shattering electoral defeat cost them control of the government, France's Center-Right parties still seem demoralized and divided --both among and within themselves.
This fundamental and far-reaching political fact of life in France today was demonstrated forcefully over the weekend. In a two-day Paris meeting (Jan. 31-Feb. 1), the largest of the country's Right parties, the neo-Gaullist Rally of the Republic (RPR in the French acronym), showed little but superficial unity. There were of course broad smiles for the television cameras, but no sign of real convergence of views among the RPR's differing internal groups.
The meeting was called by RPR leader Philippe Seguin, a veteran party leader who had wrested RPR control from former prime minister Alain Juppe last summer. It was Juppe's record-breaking unpopularity with the public that was a prime factor in last May's Left victory in general elections. The elections were called a year early by neo-Gaullist President Jacques Chirac, who had persuaded himself that this was the only way to keep a two-year-old Center-Right coalition government from succumbing to its internal divisions. Instead, the electorate's rout of Center-Right parties has made those divisions both deeper and more public.
At the Paris meeting of party militants, Seguin wanted the RPR to approve not only a new constitution but, in effect, a new identity. The symbol of the new identity was to come in a change in the party's very name, from Rally for the Republic to Rally for France. But results of a secret ballot, announced yesterday, showed only the very slimmest of majorities (0.66 percent) in favor of the change. So, instead of risking a second disunifying vote, Seguin accepted the inevitable. He told the assembled 3,500 militants: "We'll remain the Rally for the Republic. If we have to, we'll take another look later."
An earlier blow to the prestige of Seguin, who is clearly --if not openly-- seeking his party's candidacy in the 2002 presidential elections, came the day before. Shouting "Go, Chirac, Go!," the delegates gave a 13-minute standing ovation to the President, who was not even in the meeting hall but addressed it by internal television. On a giant TV screen, Chirac urged the party to turn away from what he called "vain quarrels and useless divisions." But since the election, one of the most important of those quarrels has been between Seguin and Chirac himself, who are clear rivals for RPR sympathies. Most analysts said today that Chirac won the weekend rivalry contest.
Achieving the Gaullist unity Chirac says he is seeking will take some doing, even though the delegates on Saturday did approve overwhelmingly a new RPR charter which brought the party closer to the center of French politics than ever before. The document defines the party's values not only around the importance of the nation, a traditional Gaullist totem. It also emphasizes the importance of the family, personal freedoms, equality of opportunity and --notable for its absence at the Paris meeting-- solidarity.
Perhaps even more important, the new statutes place considerable importance on the need for morality and irreproachable transparency in political life, warning that those found guilty of corruption will face excommunication from the party. This was a clear bow to the public's concern with political scandals that damaged the ruling Center-Right coalition --and some then opposition Socialist and Communist party leaders as well--from 1993 to 1997.
In total over the past five years, hundreds of French politicians have been charged with corruption, including eight former government ministers, two former party leaders and many deputies and senators. No wonder, then, a recent public-opinion poll revealed that 59 percent of France's citizens believe most of their political leaders are corrupt.
After the meeting that was designed to give it a new elan, the RPR remains what it was before --a heterogeneous political group that uneasily marries adherents of very different political orientations. They range from traditional Right-leaning party "barons" like Seguin and former interior minister Charles Pasqua to more Center-leaning figures such as former prime minister Edouard Balladur. Balladur and his supporters are closer politically than Seguin or Pasqua to Centrist-leaning and Centrist politicians. But if the RPR ever recovers from last year's election debacle, it is doomed again to share power with just those kind of politicians --men like former president Valery Giscard d'Estaing and others grouped under the Center-Right's other umbrella party, the UDF.
The lesson learned over the weekend was that such sharing of power will be no easier now than it was when the Center-Right earlier ruled for four years. Some analysts now say that Center-Right unity is a hopeless chimera, that its current divisiveness could last a decade. The only consolation they offer to French conservatives is that Socialist Party Prime Minister Lionel Jospin seems headed in coming months for similar troubles with those who share power with him. They are the Communists, Greens and small radical parties, all increasingly unhappy with Jospin's middle-of-the-Left-road policies.