Successive French prime ministers have, in the wake of their electoral triumphs, used buzz words to describe the political visions which justify their installation in power. In 1969, Chaban-Delmas spoke of a ‘new society’. In 1981, Mitterrand’s first prime minister, Pierre Mauroy, proposed a ‘platform for change’. The right-wing politicians who subsequently cohabited with Dieu were no less visionary: Chirac promised a ‘new frontier’ and Balladur sang the praises of ‘the new French example’. With the Right now holding the presidency and the National Assembly, Alain Juppé speaks of a ‘great hope’.

The weak resonance of Juppé’s slogan, with all its implications of despair, and the obsolete optimism of his predecessors, barely conceal the failure of an entire political class to deal with a pressing reality: la fracture sociale cutting up France. Growing problems of unemployment, social exclusion and racial tension are faced by politicians cowed by Maastricht and the world-system. With the disturbing result that the only dynamic force on the French political scene is the neo-fascist Front National. As left-wing commentators celebrate a social-democratic dawn in France and else-where in Western Europe, they may need to concentrate their minds on the fact that a substantial part of the French Left’s electorate is passing over to the proponents of xenophobic autarky.

In the recent presidential elections, both Left and Right took as their central theme the need for social justice. Candidates proposed measures to solve the problems of unemployment, poverty and homelessness. Jacques Chirac, who in the eighties had been a Thatcherite, and as mayor of Paris had presided over a property boom that threw thousands out onto the streets, now spoke in a Keynesian tongue. He attacked the pensée unique of the strong franc and wage restraint, and championed a reflationary strategy that included wage rises for the workers. Financial inducements to employers would put the French back to work, and radical measures would give them all a roof over their heads.

The suddenness of Chirac’s conversion to a socially-minded rhetoric may explain the weakness of his score (20 per cent) in the first round of the elections. The incredulity of the electors must also have been increased by the vagueness of Chirac’s programme. Reflationary measures would be financed by growth, rather than a rise in taxes. Public spending would increase without affecting the government’s commitment to controlling deficits.

The new Juppé government does not live up to the president’s rhetoric of ‘real change’. Fratricidal blood-letting explains the absence of Balladur and his ministerial cohorts, Charles Pasqua and Nicolas Sarkozy, but most of the faces of the outgoing government reappear, for example Alain Madelin at finance and François Bayrou at education. As a sop to sexual equality, the government has the largest-ever number of woman ministers, but they have only minor posts.