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Western Press Review: Trying To Pierce The Fog Of French Politics

Prague, 18 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Much Western press commentary continues today to dissect the results of the weekend parliamentary elections in France that gave the country's conservative coalition an absolute majority in the legislature.


Writing in the Paris-based daily "International Herald Tribune," Eric Pfanner says in a news analysis that the conservative victory is unlikely to bring a pro-business revolution in its wake. "Room for maneuver is limited by sluggish economic performance and fiscal constraints imposed above the level of national politics by the strict budgetary guidelines of the European Union."

The analysis continues: "[Prime Minister Jean-Pierre] Raffarin and President Jacques Chirac, while basking in the glow of an overwhelming legislative victory Saturday (15 June), may have their enthusiasm tempered by memories of the last time a conservative president and prime minister governed together. In 1995, the reform agenda of then-Prime Minister Alain Juppe was frustrated by labor opposition. If Chirac and Raffarin propose sweeping changes in workplace protections, unions would surely take to the streets again, despite declining membership."


Commentator Michaela Wiegel in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" agrees. French voters, she writes, clearly rejected nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen, but their endorsement of Chirac and his allies shines less brightly upon close examination.

"Glorious victory, modest victors. France's conservatives will govern the country for the next five years with a comfortable majority in both chambers, but triumphant behavior would be improper. So says not a left-wing loser but the conservative social affairs minister, [Francois Fillon,] who has just been reconfirmed in office. The outcome of France's parliamentary elections has not ended the political and social crisis that France is going through."

Wiegel contends: "In the parliamentary elections, protest voters vanished into the massed ranks of non-voters. The new conservative government can take no comfort from the fact that only one French voter in six voted for it."

The commentary continues: "The election winners, President Chirac and Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, now face the task of reconciling this dissatisfied minority with the majority of French voters who are willing to go ahead with reforms. High hopes are placed in the new leadership team, but they are problematic."


An editorial in Britain's "The Daily Telegraph" examines the same facts and reaches the opposite conclusion. "The two men [Chirac and Raffarin], with Alain Jupp, Mr. Chirac's first prime minister, in the background, now have the chance to push through the reforms on which the president embarked seven years ago. Loosening the regulations that govern business, adapting the Common Agricultural Policy to cope with EU enlargement, reducing pension entitlement and unemployment benefits, all will pit the new team against vested interests quick to take to the streets to voice their opposition."

The editorial continues: "The first big showdown is likely to be with public-sector workers in the autumn; France can expect [a challenge]. Whatever Mr. Raffarin's conciliatory powers, president and government will then have to confront organized protest in the same way as [did British Prime Minister] Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s."

"Mr. Chirac is not noted for consistency, but the conjunction of right-wing dominance and the fact that this is the last chance to make his mark may persuade him to stand firm."


Britain's daily "The Guardian" publishes today a news analysis by Paul Whiteley, professor of government at the University of Essex, and Patrick Seyd, professor of politics at the University of Sheffield. The authors describe parallels between British politics and those of France. Chirac and his allies won their seats not through party membership. They won instead, in part, on what the authors call "valence issues" -- that is, based on behavioral goals.

"Elections in modern democracies are increasingly won on what political scientists call valence issues. These are issues such as unemployment and economic growth, where everyone is agreed on the objectives but there is disagreement about which party is most competent in achieving them."

They continue: "There is, however, another lesson from the left's defeat in France which has largely gone unnoticed but which has important implications for British parties. [A researcher] at the Paris-based Center for the Study of Political Life points out that the Parti Socialiste had around 200,000 members in 1988 but is currently thought to have only around 80,000."

The writers add: "In Britain, we have been tracking the state of the grassroots Labor Party for more than a decade, and the story emerging from this research is that, with one exception, there has been a decline in both membership and activism over time. The same feelings of alienation which produced a dramatic loss of support for the party among working-class voters in the Labor heartlands in 2001 are also at work within the party organization."


Commentary also ranges over a variety of other issues. Columnist Nicholas Kristof, writing in "The New York Times," denounces U.S. wavering on ratification of an international treaty banning gender discrimination. President Jimmy Carter sent the treaty to Congress for ratification in 1980, but Congress is considering ratification only just now, and the current U.S. Justice Department seems to oppose it.

"[U.S. Attorney General] John Ashcroft's Justice Department [appears] to be trying to defend America from the terrifying threat of global women's rights. [The department] is conducting its own review of the treaty in what looks suspiciously like an effort to eviscerate it."

Kristof continues: "I wish Mr. Ashcroft could come here to Pakistan, to talk to women [here]. Because, frankly, the treaty has almost nothing to do with American women, who already enjoy the rights the treaty supports -- opportunities to run for political office, to receive an education, to choose one's own spouse, to hold jobs. Instead it has everything to do with the half of the globe where to be female is to be persecuted until, often, death."

The writer adds: "Critics have complained that the treaty, in the words of [conservative U.S. Senator] Jesse Helms, was 'negotiated by radical feminists with the intent of enshrining their radical antifamily agenda into international law' and is 'a vehicle for imposing abortion on countries that still protect the rights of the unborn.' That's absurd."

The writer concludes: "Do we really want to side with the Taliban mullahs, who, like Mr. Ashcroft, fretted that the treaty imposes sexual equality? Or do we dare side with Third World girls who die because of their gender, more than 2,000 of them today alone?"


In a commentary in "The Washington Post," Colum Lynch writes similarly: "Conservative U.S. Christian organizations have joined forces with Islamic governments to halt the expansion of sexual and political protections and rights for gays, women, and children at United Nations conferences. The new alliance, which coalesced during the past year, has received a major boost from the administration of President George W. Bush, which appointed antiabortion activists to key positions on U.S. delegations to UN conferences on economic and social policy."

Lynch adds: "The alliance of conservative Islamic states and Christian organizations has placed the Bush administration in the awkward position of siding with some of its most reviled adversaries, including Iraq and Iran, in cultural skirmishes against its closest European allies, which broadly support expanding sexual and political rights."


Britain's "The Independent" in an editorial today takes the United States to task for acting, as the editorial's headline puts it, "like a Hollywood hit man" toward Saddam Hussein's Iraq. "The fall of Saddam is overdue and much-desired, even among Arab countries. But for Washington to disclose that it now plans to do this extra-judicially sends out entirely the wrong message, however good it sounds to American voters. The road to global condemnation of the United States is paved with the coups and attempted coups of the CIA."

"This is no way for a mature democracy to proceed, let alone the world's only remaining superpower. If America believes -- as well it might -- that the peace and security of the world is best served by a change in regime in Iraq, then it should proceed through legitimate action and coordinated world pressure. This is the real world, not Hollywood."