Left still holds the key to France's future

South China Morning Post  |  May 8, 2002

By Sin-ming Shaw

Byline: Newly elected President Jacques Chirac needs the support of both sides in next month's parliamentary elections to push through economic reforms, writes Sin-ming Shaw

FRENCH PRESIDENT Jacques Chirac, who gained over 80 per cent of the vote in Sunday's election, did not win because of his policies. He won because the people did not want his far-right opponent, Jean-Marie Le Pen, to win.

The vote of 82 per cent for Mr Chirac and 18 per cent for Mr Le Pen was in line with expectations.

A crucial battle will be fought in next month's elections to select legislators to the National Assembly. If supporters of the left - the Socialists, various environmentalist parties and other fringe groups - vote along traditional lines, Mr Chirac will not get his parliamentary majority. He may be forced to again select a prime minister from the opponent's camp to forge a political marriage known in France as "cohabitation".

There have been three cohabitation governments in this Fifth Republic created by General Charles de Gaulle in 1958. The first was in 1986-89, when Socialist president Francois Mitterrand had to choose Mr Chirac to be his prime minister. The second was in 1993-95, when Mitterrand chose Edouard Balladur, a right-wing rival to Mr Chirac. The third began in 1997 when Mr Chirac, elected president two years earlier, found himself with Socialist Lionel Jospin as his prime minister.

For many voters, the terms right-wing and left-wing have become meaningless. For clear manifestos, many have turned to extremists. On the right, there is Jean-Marie Le Pen. Save perhaps for the French Communist Party, there is no extreme left of significance in France. The communist candidate got less than 3.4 per cent of the presidential vote.

The right is said to represent the free market, low taxes and globalisation, while the left is said to be mainly comprised of "free lunchers", labour unions and sock-the-rich do-gooders.

In reality, such distinctions are not significant. France has been ruled by essentially the same kinds of people, irrespective of their political labels.

Most prime ministers, socialist or right-wing, were educated at the Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA), as were Mr Jospin and Mr Chirac. Nearly all the senior ministers in Mr Jospin's cabinet went there, or to another grande ecole. The new Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, went to the Ecole Superieure de Commerce de Paris, another grande ecole which is a notch below the ENA.

The principal difference between centre left and centre right is essentially more free lunches versus fewer ones.

The predominant thinking among the ruling elite is that problems can be solved by leaders with superior intellect and overwhelming logic, and who are properly trained, like themselves.

In France, these graduates of grande ecoles plan for the country. They decide how many doctors must be trained at universities, what textbooks children must study and how many should enter universities. Advancement of knowledge is mostly through examinations. Those who make it to the top are assured of their ability to know the right answers.

Pre-dating Hong Kong's Financial Secretary Antony Leung Kam-chung by a century, members of the French elite have never doubted their ability as "market enablers" who can give the market the right kick to send it higher. The end result is that France has the largest government share in gross domestic product of all major western economies and one of the least efficient economies. Worse, mixing political and economic powers, like in China, has been the path to corruption which has tainted both sides.

France's many problems are now structural. Too many interest groups: unions (even in universities), government bureaucracies (also unionised), the ruling elite themselves and the salaried workers - blue- and white-collar - have benefited from heavy-handed state policies. Only the outsiders - the new job seekers, immigrants and the entrepreneurial - know the French way is not necessarily the best way. But the obstacles to change are formidable.

Left-wing voters realise there is something wrong with the economic structure. But the generous redistribution policies in place are what they traditionally sought. Will they throw their weight behind Mr Chirac to allow the right to restructure France to become more competitive, even if that means dismantling many of their favourite programmes?

Or will they revert to form to select their own representatives and force another cohabitation government to stand up against moves to dismantle "free lunch" programmes?

If Mr Chirac were deprived of a majority, would he seek an alliance with the extreme right to avoid another cohabitation with the left?

In the best of worlds, supporters of the left will hold their nose, wear their gloves and vote to give Mr Chirac a parliamentary majority to enable him to push through reform measures to restructure the economy.

Such a hypothetical outcome makes a few heroic assumptions about French politics. Nothing so far has indicated that those on the left are ready to abandon their ideological bent. Nor is there evidence that the ruling elite truly believes the market is a better "enabler" than itself.

A still bigger assumption is that the unions and subsidised agricultural sector will abandon their familiar tactic of paralysing strikes and embrace market forces.

Next month's election will mark a critical moment for France: will it be business as usual, ensuring continued decline, or a new beginning to regain the glory that was France?

Sin-ming Shaw teaches at the American University of Paris smshaw@shaw.com.hk

In Sin-ming Shaw's article on the French presidential elections published on Saturday, it was stated that Jacques Chirac and Lionel Jospin were graduates of the Ecole Normale Superieur. They were actually educated at the Ecole Nationale d'Administration. The mistake was due to a sub-editing error.

 Back to home page