After the shock presidential election, reflection. Jean-Marie Le Pen, who wanted to pull France out of the European Union and illegal immigrants out of France, has been defeated in a landslide in the election decider.
Now France, shaken, is pondering its future -- before it votes on it, in the legislative elections in June.
What center-right President Jacques Chirac will hope for is a majority in the National Assembly. For the past four years the center-left, under the former prime minister, Lionel Jospin, had control of the assembly. This political "cohabitation" of right and left followed two years in which Chirac's first prime minister, Alain Juppé, a fellow man of the right, tried and failed to push through economic reforms. The effort ended in protests that led Chirac to call an early election in 1997. It was a gamble that did not work. The voters did not back him. Instead they rejected reform.
That rejection five years ago still casts a cloud and leaves a dilemma. France's malaise, its modest growth, its high unemployment -- particularly bad among the young -- its rising crime, are in part a reflection of a failure to address economic problems. It is in this policy malaise that Le Pen has thrived. The race card has not been played so decisively in Europe since Adolf Hitler, and, though Chirac won the second round handsomely, it gained 5.5 million votes.
Le Pen's success may make caution a watchword, for it has revealed France's unhappiness, division and political frailty. The Fifth Republic itself looks tired, wrote Britain's Financial Times. Has the tired republic enough strength to reform? Or will it now run for cover, for more hedging, for hesitation -- and "cohabitation" again?
As the country decides its future, Chirac, the veteran opportunist of French politics, has the chance to play the first card. It is for caution that he has opted, it would seem, in his choice as prime minister of Jean-Pierre Raffarin, a portly and little-known man from the peaceful western department of Poitou-Charentes, a place where the issues of immigration and crime, that played well for Le Pen, are of little import. Chirac has turned to old France to tackle the problems of modern France. It is another gamble.
Chirac may be calculating that after the division sown by Le Pen, France will warm to the reassuring girth and flat, crooked nose of Raffarin -- the profile, wrote Le Monde, the French daily, Wednesday of a Leon Ventura, a much-loved film star who often played tough men.
Nor should Raffarin's political skills be underestimated. He has politics in his blood. The son of a local politician, he first rose in the ranks of the former centrist President, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. Later, after Giscard's career waned, he became close to Chirac -- and to the would-be reformer, Juppé.
Raffarin is not Parisian, not a product of the ENA school of political science that has provided so much of France's political elite, not abrasive, and may have been chosen ahead of a rising political star, Nicolas Sarkozy, precisely because of that, but he is also a man with at least a connection to reform.
Juppé by the backdoor? That may be what Chirac is hoping.
But first comes the front door: the June election. This is where Chirac will hope his choice will gain entry. It is the election that will decide if Raffarain is to have more than a month in which to show his qualities.
The 27-member Cabinet named this week by Raffarin is intended to win over the voters. There are many fresh faces. Twenty have never held Cabinet positions. Six of the 27 are women. And "only" six of the new Cabinet are products of the ENA school. Juppe is notable by his absence but Le Monde noted that his presence was felt as the team was chosen; he was in contact by telephone.
In the election the Socialist challenge may be strong. Jospin was edged into third place by Le Pen in the first round of the presidential election. Now the Socialists are attempting to rally themselves and prevent a right-wing clean sweep of power. The many allegations of corruption that dog Chirac may serve the socialist cause. But again he may be calculating: that the voters will want to give his likeable and untainted new boy a chance.
Meanwhile it is to Sarkozy that the interior ministry has been given, along with the difficult task of tackling crime and voters' insecurities about immigration. It is a tough brief for a man currently thought one of the brightest of France's emerging politicians.
Beyond the assembly election and this troubled spring lurks the deeper question. France is a country of fiercely-defended rights. The paysans, or small farmers, of the countryside defend their small, economically inefficient plots. The civil servants of the overmanned mairies -- town halls that appear to be needed in the smallest village -- have defended their jobs. No politician has dared tackle them.
Jospin, for his part, addressed unemployment naively by introducing the 35-hour week, which has added to employers' costs and made them still more reluctant to take on new labor.
All this has to end if the French fiscal deficit, predicted to rise close to the EU's limit of 3 percent of gross domestic product this year, is to be reined in, taxes cut, and the economy made more dynamic, more able to provide employment. Is opportunistic Chirac the man to end it?
The question marks are many. France's divisions have again opened frighteningly. Chirac has placed his money, perhaps cleverly, on a provincial unknown and on fresh faces. But in the election and after it, it is the French that will decide. Is the shock from Le Pen going to prove salutary? Will the French take reformist medicine more readily? Or spit it out still more angrily?
For France and Europe, the stakes could hardly be higher.
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