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
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.
The government’s programme for the fight against unemployment (standing at over 12 per cent) is timid, contradictory and under constant revision. It was originally intended that a large reduction in employers’ social-security contributions would stimulate job creation. This would be combined with a significant increase in the minimum wage and in public-sector salaries. The problem immediately arose of how this could be afforded by a government committed to the project of a single currency set out at Maastricht, according to which public deficits must not exceed 3 per cent of gdp.
As the franc came under attack, the government reassured the market and foreign governments of its commitment to Maastricht. The proposed reductions in social-security contributions were scaled down. The increase in the minimum wage would be mitigated by an increase in vat. The money accruing from this measure dwarfs that promised by a modest rise in the tax on France’s richest.