French Leaders Blatantly Vie for Power

Article excerpt

PARIS - The difficult relationship between conservative President Jacques Chirac and Lionel Jospin, the Socialist premier, has never been a secret, but it has now become blatantly embarrassing.

The French media openly describe the two leaders as being "at daggers drawn" and commentators thrive on various clashes marring what is known as "cohabitation."

And both men face 16 more months of tension - until the presidential election in 2002 - in which each is expected to be a candidate.

"During the past weeks, the two competitors have discarded their masks," said Eric Zemmour, a political analyst for the conservative daily Le Figaro.

What adds spice - and political uncertainty - to the feud is that Mr. Jospin appears to be supported frequently by such well-known conservatives as former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, former Premier Raymond Barre and former Interior Minister Charles Pasqua.

But while politicians fight for influence, French voters appear to be immune to the squabbling. The statistical French person has never lived better than now, but, according to opinion polls, has never distrusted politicians more.

This was reflected in the September referendum, when voters tepidly approved a government plan to shorten the president's term from seven to five years despite Mr. Chirac's opposition. Absenteeism was an unprecedented 70 percent.

In fact, during the past year, Mr. Chirac has suffered more setbacks than during the first four years of his term. In his periodic addresses to the nation on television, the president tries out slogans to which few French citizens pay attention.

For example, in his annual New Year's speech, Mr. Chirac voiced hope for a "year of useful reforms," knowing, of course, that a pre-election period is usually marked by political paralysis.

The start of the current year clearly showed the degree of hostility between the two men at the helm of state. Mr. Jospin tried to upstage Mr. Chirac's address with an interview in the Sunday weekly Le Journal du Dimanche - an audacity unprecedented during the many vicissitudes of the Fifth Republic founded in 1958.

France, claimed the prime minister, "has regained confidence, the face of our country has relaxed, a smile has replaced the tension."

Mr. Chirac refrained from any blunt attack, but in other statements he has accused the left-of-center coalition government of failure in its economic policies, fiscal incompetence and inadequate educational reforms. The coalition includes Socialists, ecologists and the steadily weakening Communist Party.

Conservative critics claim that under leftist leadership, France is becoming a "nation of civil servants" with an inflated army of government employees.

According to Bernard Zimmern, a statistician and author of several studies, the French General Directorate of Taxes employs as many people as the U. …