Prague, 24 March 1998 (RFE/RL) - President Jacques Chirac has warned France's political establishment, including his own conservative camp, against making deals with the extreme-Right National Front Party that threaten the country's core values of liberty, equality and fraternity.
In an unusually blunt televised speech last night, Chirac called the National Front a "racist and xenophobic" party. He condemned deals struck last week between the Front and mainstream conservatives that gave the moderate Right control of five regional councils, saying that in a democracy "the end (never) justifies the means." He also accused the governing Left of "pouring oil on the fire" by seeking to exploit the Right's current disarray and disunity.
Chirac's intervention came toward the end of a turbulent day in French politics, which saw the moderate Right finally stymie the Front's effort to gain greater respectability through further regional electoral alliances with it. Two conservatives elected yesterday to council presidencies with the support of Front votes promptly resigned, throwing their regions open to possible Left leadership in the near future. In the election of a regional council president in a southern area around Marseilles, the nation's second most populous region, Socialist Michel Vauzelle won the office after conservatives refused to break a long-standing taboo against deals with the anti-immigrant Front. Vauzelle, a former justice minister, paid tribute to his conservative opponents, saying "they showed their loyalty to the values on which our republic was founded."
Interviewed on French television after Chirac's speech, Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen denounced the President's remarks as what he called "defamatory and deceitful." Le Pen described Chirac as, in his words, "an infamous liar" who together with his allies "were probably the most immoral leaders France has ever known."
Late last week Le Pen, seeking to enlarge his party's role as political king-maker, had offered to support the mainstream Right's candidacy for the presidency of the Ile-de-France region. That area, the most populous in the country, includes Paris and its suburbs. In exchange, Le Pen asked for conservatives' support of his own presidential candidacy in the southern region.
In the event, Le Pen's offer backfired because it was seen as cynical and insulting to voters who had elected regional councilors nine days ago. In the southern regional council vote yesterday afternoon, conservatives simply abstained, thereby electing Vauzelle. And, after Chirac's speech in the evening, a late-night vote of the Ile-de-France regional council gave its presidency, too, to a Socialist when the conservative candidate (a woman), a member of Chirac's own Gaullist party, withdrew her name. She said she would not accept the Front votes needed to attain a conservative majority.
The five conservatives who last week did break the taboo to get themselves elected as regional council presidents are now under strong pressure to give up their offices as well. All of them are Center-Rightists belonging to the Union for French Democracy (UDF) who, in coalition with the Gaullists, make up most of the parliamentary opposition to the ruling Socialist-led Left Government. The national leadership of both conservative groups had instructed followers not to make deals with the Front. But led by former defense Minister Charles Millon, the five UDF members clearly accepted Front electoral support --without, however, admitting so publicly.
In his speech last night, Chirac expressed strong disapproval of the five maverick conservatives, whom he characterized as, in his phrase, "preferring political deals to the voice of their conscience." But the President put a large part of the blame for the National Front's emergence as political arbiter between the mainstream Right and Left on the Socialists themselves.
Chirac suggested that the Left's willingness to accept Front votes in the second round of last year's parliamentary elections had allowed the Socialists to assume power. He also reminded his listeners that the proportional representation system that was used in the single round of regional voting (on Mar. 15), which allowed the Front to assume its role as arbiter in the council elections, had first been introduced by a Socialist government in the 1980s.
Without mentioning his predecessor by name, Chirac was clearly referring to former Socialist President Francois Mitterrand. In the 1980s, Mitterrand briefly ordered a partial proportional-representation system in parliamentary elections, which gave the National Front 37 deputies in the National Assembly and made it for the first time a force on the national scene. It was Mitterrand as well who, in 1992, decided that France's recently established regions would hold their council elections with full proportional representation, thereby insuring strong Front influence.
France is one of the few major Western democracies in which elected governments with strong parliamentary majorities frequently decide to change national electoral systems for partisan ends. Last night Chirac said that, after consulting with what he called all "republican" political groups --which obviously excluded the National Front-- he would propose reforms in the electoral system.
Chirac said reforms were needed to modernize the system as well as, he suggested, to prevent a recurrence of what he called the National Front's "disproportionate leverage" in the regional elections. He specifically spoke of the need to bring more French women into political life and to limit the current practice of allowing politicians to hold several national and local offices at once.