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France: Prime Minister Calls For Quick Action On Reforms

French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin has called on the country's newly elected National Assembly to quickly approve reforms promised by conservative President Jacques Chirac. RFE/RL details the action program proposed yesterday by Raffarin and the reaction from its opponents on the left.

Paris, 4 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Yesterday's general policy address to the National Assembly (lower house of parliament) by French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin was essentially an appeal for rapid parliamentary approval of a series of reforms promised by conservative leaders in recent presidential and legislative elections.

Both Raffarin himself and President Jacques Chirac had pledged to take quick steps to bolster personal security, reduce income taxes and move toward increased decentralization of authority from Paris to France's 22 regions.

Raffarin himself began his political career as a regional leader in western France (Poitou-Charentes), while Chirac has long sought increased decentralization.

On 2 July, Chirac sent a written message to both the National Assembly and the Senate saying that the decisions that concern French citizens should from now on be taken at a level "as close as possible to the realities." He also called for amending the Fifth Republic's Constitution so as to distribute power between the state local communities more evenly.

Yesterday, addressing an extraordinary session of the National Assembly, Raffarin told the deputies that the electoral period -- April for the presidential election, June for the legislative balloting -- had now given way to what he called "the time for action."

"Our action aims to restore hope among the French people. The source of this hope, you know, ladies and gentlemen, lies in national unity. I don't want to make division a principle of government. I don't want to set one group of Frenchmen against another. We don't want to oppose cites to villages, consumers to farmers, workers to employers, the interests of some to the interests of others. We want to govern for all! (cheers)"

To meet citizens' concerns for greater personal security, Raffarin called for recruiting more than 13,000 new police and gendarmes over the next five years -- the term of the new assembly. At the same time, he also sought approval for adding some 10,000 magistrates and legal assistants to France's ponderously slow system of justice. Both measures will be presented in draft laws when the assembly meets in ordinary session in September.

Raffarin confirmed that Chirac's campaign pledge of a reduction in personal income taxes would begin with a 5 percent cut in the autumn. But he added that Chirac's stated objective of reducing income tax by one-third over the next five years would depend on France's economic health.

Decentralization of governmental authority, however, was clearly the premier's chief objective -- and passion. He said decentralization would make possible what he called "indispensable structural reforms" and create greater "liberty of action." He promised to introduce two measures during the assembly's autumn session. One will propose constitutional changes that would give the regions the power to introduce their own reforms and carry out their own referenda. The other will detail what Raffarin called "the transfer of powers" from Paris to the regions.

In the 44-year-old Fifth Republic, changes in the constitution can take place by one of two methods. The government can call for a joint meeting of the National Assembly and Senate -- both of which are now dominated by the center-right -- to approve the changes, which then become law. Or it can ask for popular approval of the constitutional changes in a nationwide referendum.

Raffarin indicated that his new conservative government would not seek to repeal the law establishing a 35-hour workweek passed by the previous left-controlled assembly. But he said it would be made more flexible by allowing for the possibility of working overtime.

Many French laborers who were supposed to benefit from the law actually lost considerable income by being prohibited from working overtime. Several analysts said that the chief architect of the law, former Socialist Labor Minister Martine Aubry, lost her seat in the assembly because workers in her constituency in the northern city of Lille held her responsible for their loss of income. Aubry herself said local factors were accounted for her defeat.

Aubry did not comment publicly on Raffarin's speech yesterday, but Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande did. He said the party questioned both the method and policies of the new government, and cited its unwillingness to increase the country's minimum wage as a sign of what he called "its great sensitivity to employers' ideas."

Over the past weekend (29 June), at a meeting of the Socialists' National Committee, Hollande was forced to arbitrate a public quarrel between the party's social democrats and its doctrinaire old-time socialists. The dispute centered around his nomination of former Socialist Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, a social democrat, as the party's new spokesman, which was rejected by left-wingers led by former party leader Henri Emmanuelli.

Hollande smoothed over the quarrel by suggesting that Fabius become the number-two man in the party leadership, a proposal that passed after the Emmanuelli group agreed to abstain on the motion. But the party's disarray since its defeats in the two spring elections remains difficult to conceal. One clear sign was the National Committee's decision to advance the Socialists' national congress to the spring of next year, when militants must define the party's new political platform.

As is traditional for a prime minister's policy address to the National Assembly, Raffarin barely mentioned foreign affairs. In France, that is the president's domain, according both to the constitution and to past practice.

The one reference Raffarin did make to extra-French affairs was to reaffirm Chirac's commitment to allowing no changes in the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy -- known as the CAP -- before 2006. That may not be good news for some Central and East European candidates for EU membership, which are hoping for changes in the CAP that would enable them to benefit immediately from it after they enter the union.